Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford
Charles Willeford wrote Miami Blues in 1984, the first of a series of four books featuring Detective Sergeant Hoke Moseley. The book was made into a film in 1990 and is widely considered to be one of its era’s most influential works of the crime fiction genre, inspiring crime legends such as Quentin Tarantino, Elmore James and James Lee Burke.
Miami Blues is a hugely enjoyable read and incites the expression “They don’t make them like this anymore.” If nothing else, it’s certainly a classic crime novel, full of atmosphere and shady characters.
The story begins with Freddy ‘Junior’ Frenger as he lands at the airport in Miami fresh from San Quentin prison and with three stolen wallets in his possession, ready to resume his crime career path. A chance encounter with a Hare Krishna, resulting in the man’s death starts Freddy’s Miami crime story off almost as soon as he lands. With a stolen suitcase, he quickly leaves the airport and makes his way into Miami to twist himself up in interlinking events that see him soon familiarising himself with the local police department. This is where we meet Hoke Moseley, a jaded, aging cop with a depressing past, trying to make a name for himself on the streets of Miami as a tough detective. He’s a great tough good guy character and well-developed. He’s sharp but certainly not infallible – the perfect balance.
The book is written in the third person narrative with an alternating person view that flips between Freddy and Hoke Moseley. This is interesting because when the story is read from Hoke’s point of view it is much more clear-cut; Freddy is the bad guy, he does some despicable things and has no sense of conscience. However when the story is read from Freddy’s point of view the reader starts to see him as a slightly more sympathetic character. There are hints of altruism in his thoughts despite at the start declaring to himself that this was where he had always gone wrong and there was to be no more of it; it does still seep through and there are reasons behind some of his actions that when considered from his side don’t seem quite so shocking. This train of thought never really develops any further though. I had the impression that the author wanted to maintain the bad guy persona of this character but create some kind of relationship between him and the reader in order to produce more feeling through the development of the plot and conclusion. It is well done.
Another triumph in the book is how Charles Willeford has captured the smothering atmosphere of Miami in the 1980s. He creates the perfect crime setting by describing an uncomfortable, muggy and dangerous city with a sharp and lethal neon beauty to it. It is an enthralling place to be while following the story and perhaps my one criticism would be that even more description of the setting could be accommodated.
Charles Willeford has allowed his novel space to breath. He has told a simple story of a world of crime with interesting colour and characters. Many crime novels today rely so heavily on complicated twists and shock factors, over clever forensic detail and cocky characters, perhaps to compete with popular TV shows. Miami Blues doesn’t do this and doesn’t need to. It benefits from staying away from it all. The book feels like a holiday to read and reminds me that crime novels can be and should be enjoyable in a literary sense too.