I finally read Charles Willeford's unpublished novel GRIMHAVEN…and its fascinating. It bears a lot of similarity to some of his earlier books and is every bit as compelling, disturbing, and darkly funny. In some ways, its among his best books. But what is most striking about it is what it represents.
The book centers around Hoke Moseley, the unforgettable detective in Willeford's classic, break-through novel MIAMI BLUES. But that novel, and success, came late in Willeford's life. When he was asked to write a sequel to capitalize on his newfound fame, he did the unexpected.
He wrote a book in which Hoke leaves the force, moves into a drab apartment, and works in his father's hardware store. Hoke attempts to live a life of extreme austerity, cutting his wardrobe down to just two jumpsuits (and no underwear) and eating a hard-boiled egg each day for lunch, among other things. Into this carefully constructed, cold life, come his two teenage daughters, abandoned by his ex-wife, who has run off to L.A. to live with a baseball player. They complicate his life and stretch his thin budget. So Hoke solves this problem by strangling his daughters and leaving their bodies on ice in his shower (which he continues to use to wash up each day). He eventually dumps the bodies in his father's empty home and drives to Los Angeles to murder his ex-wife. The only reason he wants to kill her is so he can be imprisoned in California, where he'd face death in the gas chamber for her murder as opposed to the electric chair in Florida for killing his daughters. Either way, Hoke figures he can enjoy ten good, solitary years in prison, enjoying the austere "simple life" he'd wanted, before his inevitable execution.
I enjoyed the book immensely on several levels. But its real literary value is what it tells us about Willeford the writer. It's like a 2oo page statement on Willeford's fear of success…and his resentment at the demands and challenges writing commercial fiction would place on him. Or so I assume, I didn't know the man and I'm not a shrink. But what other way is there to read it?
Taken on its own, GRIMHAVEN is a masterful piece of work and pure, unadulterated Willeford. As a MIAMI BLUES sequel, it's a calculated fuck you to the character, the publisher, the readers and his career. It would be like following up the pilot of MONK by having Adrian rape and murder Sharona, then dispose of her body with acid in his bathtub.
Naturally, Willeford's agent took one look at the GRIMHAVEN manuscript and said there was no way in hell he could send it to the publisher…it would be career suicide and would squander a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Willeford wisely took his agent's advice and shelved the book…but not entirely. He ended up cannibalizing its best parts, and making them even better, in the three fantastic Hoke Moseley books that followed.
GRIMHAVEN is only legally available to be read at the Willeford Archive at the Broward County Library. I was fortunate to be sent the manuscript a few years ago from Willeford's widow (as a result of refusing to read a bootleg copy that was offered to me). I don't know why I waited so long to finally read it…but it was worth the wait. It's a fascinating piece of work…and a revealing glimpse into Charles Willeford creative life.