It’s a hard thing to be asked about a “forgotten book”. You start to wonder, what constitutes “forgotten”? I mean aside from the obvious that a book’s gone out print or that you don’t see it in the mainstream stores any more.
I kind of grappled with this one for a while before settling on a Charles Willeford novel. Yeah, I know Willeford ain’t exactly “forgotten” but everyone focuses on those incredible Hoke Mosely books and tend to slip past some of the other stuff.
Like The Shark Infested Custard, my forgotten (or at least hazily remembered) book for Friday 6th June.*
It was getting my hands on the Noircon ’08 program that reminded me of my literary love for Willeford. They reprinted early manuscript portions of a book called A Necklace of Hickeys which would later become New Hope For The Dead, the first of the Hoke Mosely novels. I read the excerpts, vowed to re-read some Willeford. When I went to the shelf, I couldn’t see the Mosely novels.
No, I saw…
The Shark Infested Custard.
And I remembered it, vaguely. The story of a group of guys hanging out in a Miami Bachelor Pad. They’ve got the whole swinging life going on. They’re the ratpack without the Hollywood sheen and the sanitised gloss. They live for women, drink and… themselves. Jesus, you want your typical self-centred asshole noir protagonists, look no further. Yeah, I wanted noir, this was going to be my jolt.
So yeah, I remembered the assholes, and I was right to think of our single guys like that. Like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin without the safety nets. And yet they have this charm. The woman do fall for them, and so do we. They lure us in. We think, hey they ain’t so bad. And for a while they fool us. And then bad things start to happen. Oh, yeah, at least one girl winds up dead. Nobody’s fault? Well, that can’t be certain, but… hold on, are we still thinking these guys should get away with what they do?
With each section being told from a different guy’s point of view, Willeford makes us see the group as a whole, understand who they are and what they are. And he doesn’t flinch, doesn’t shy away from anything much here. He gives us single guys at their absolute most selfish. He gives us the true asshole in all his glory. Would you want to know these guys in real life? Hell, no. But its amazing to spend time with them on the page. One blurb on my Canongate edition says its like Dumas’s Four Musketeers, and yeah, this is “all for one” taken to one hell of an extreme.
Willeford is a master at the noir trick of making us want to see assholes get away with being assholes. We have this need to see how far they can go. Maybe they can go further than we’d ever dare, you know? Maybe we can live this vicarious and fucked up life through these guys. Maybe… maybe…
It’s incredible how amoral these characters are, and like all the best novels, the whole damn thing adds up to that one, perfect, final line. I can’t give it away, but when it comes, yeah you know its there. The only other writer ever to do that to me with a final line – make it seem so damn perfect, like the whole point of everything that preceeded – was Jason Starr in Tough Luck. But Willeford… man, he’s a true original.
So if you can find a copy, I tell ya, read The Shark Infested Custard. Hell, read any Willeford novel. And only when you have can you truly call yourself a crime fiction reader.
*Want more forgotten books by even more writers/readers/geniuses? Check Patti Abbot’s blog for this week’s list and past Forgotten Fridays.