Until the mid-eighties when he hit pay dirt with his Hoke Mosely quartet Charles Willeford’s previous books seemed destined to remain buried in paperback obscurity. His mid-eighties commercial success, thirty years after his first novel, ‘The High Priest of California’, was published changed this and suddenly his previous paperbacks were being sought after by collectors. This would eventually lead to them being reprinted and so his audience would grow. Unlike the Hoke Mosley detective novels Willeford’s earlier titles don’t feature recurring characters (or detectives) and perhaps this is why, previously, they failed to stand out more from the crowd. This is because Willeford was writing in a world where the turnover of writers was so high in the glory days when he began writing that the only way to make a living was to keep churning out title after title or fall by the wayside your reputation buried under the avalanching mountain of new titles. The truth is though that these earlier Willeford books aren’t typical of the crime writing or any other genre. Whilst detectives do occasionally feature, and people committing crimes are in abundance, these earlier Willeford’s novels are closer in spirit to those of Hemingway or Flannery O’Connor at their most hard boiled, writing against the clock ticking, stripped of any hint of sentimentality or melodrama. His stories and characters reflect his own colourful biography that included a stint of riding the rail roads along the Mexican border for a year at the age of thirteen. Cockfighter is a story told in the first person through the eyes of Frank Mansfield, a mute cockfighter, down on his luck, who after losing everything he owns in a bet, is determined to make one last go at winning the coveted ‘Cockfighter of the Year’ title (the “ultimate achievement in one of the toughest sports in the world,”). Frank is prepared to sacrifice everything (and already has) and his passion is infectious. By way of this story we are taken on a fascinating tour of the rural Deep South’s underbelly that most readers today would otherwise never have a chance of experiencing. The film starring Warren Oates directed by Roger Corman and featuring a cameo from Willeford is pretty cool too.
Charles Willeford: Cockfighter