I discovered Charles Willeford’s work last year and he’s become one of my favorite crime writers. Cockfighter was the best crime book I read in 2017 and his first Hank Moseley story Miami Blues will be chalked up to one of the best I’ve read this year. A raucous tale of the worst cat-and-mouse game ever played between cop and criminal.
Willeford has a skill for three-dimensional characters, good-but-not-flashy dialogue, wry humor, and measured cynicism. All of those are on display for New Hope for the Dead, a book I enjoyed but didn’t like as much as I wanted to.
This is less of a conventional mystery or crime story and more of an exploration into Hoke Moseley’s life. As we know from the first book, it’s not a good one. His wife takes half his salary in child support for daughters he barely knows, he lives in a dumpy motel and is being squeezed by his department to move to Miami city proper in order to meet regulations and, while a competent detective, he’s far from Sherlock Holmes. Hoke is basically a Miami-transplanted Jimmy McNulty with WASP sensibilities.
But suddenly, he gets stuck caring for his daughters as their mom runs off with a ballplayer to California. And on top of that, he’s given cold cases to solve with a woman he’s not always a fan of. But things work out well enough. Willeford allows him to take to being a father without resorting to tired cliches. And he helps his partner in a jam too. There’s an empathy to the character that I appreciate and it doesn’t feel forced. Willeford’s writing style creates the most organic atmosphere possible for this kind of story. In the hands of a lesser writer, this is a Hallmark movie. Fortunately, Charles Willeford is not a lesser writer.
Unfortunately, I came to this for the crime aspect and that’s lacking. Instead of one case providing the narrative, there are several that Hoke and his partner Ellita have to work on. So rather than sail smoothly from beginning to end as Miami Blues did, this one bounces around too much and it’s tough to be invested in all that’s going on. There is one major case throughout that provides the spine for the book and sets the stage for an excellent conclusion. But that’s not enough to save it.
And then, there’s the racism. Oh boy. Now, I don’t like retroactively going back to old crime novels and judging them on “wokeness” (tongue-in-cheek). Willeford’s Hoke Moseley isn’t a klansman. But he definitely has a white cop’s worldview of bad neighborhoods and black/brown skinned/poor white folk likely being criminals. It’s uncomfortable and it can’t help but put a wedge between the reader and the character.
Nevertheless, I like these books and will likely swallow that pill again in order to keep reading them.