Sideswipe: Charles Willeford (1987)

“Being without a wife gave a man a whole different way of looking at the world. And it looked even better now that he had a car to drive again. If it came to a toss-up, car or wife, most men, or at least the ones Stanley had known in Detroit, would certainly give up their wives.”

Sideswipe, Charles Willeford’s third Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective under incredible strain, personally and professionally, and he decides to quit the force. While Hoke’s pals on the force, his very pregnant partner, Sanchez, and Bill Henderson, cover for Hoke and file for medical leave, Hoke decides he wants a simpler life. Yeah, right. He accepts a job managing his father’s apartment complex in Riviera Beach, and while Hoke initially imagines he’ll be on the beach and little troubled by tenants, the job soon turns into one annoying interruption after another.

But Hoke’s life is in the background, and in the foreground is a violent crime, still in the embryonic stages. …

Retired Michigan auto worker Stan and his wife Betsey moved to Florida a few years earlier. Betsey isn’t thrilled with the move and wants to be back in Michigan. There’s not exactly war afoot between them, but Betsey doesn’t like Stan under her feet all day, and the two of them lead separate lives. A terrible misunderstanding involving a neighbourhood child leads to Stan spending the night in jail, and here he meets a glib, smooth-talking career criminal, Troy Louden. Troy gives Stan a few tips, and in exchange, Stan promises to do a ‘favour’ for Louden. When Betsey departs for Michigan, Stan, feeling alone and betrayed by his wife and family, allows Troy to stay. One favour leads to another until Stan becomes an accomplice in a vicious armed robbery. Willeford’s brilliantly conceived creation of the psychopath, Troy Louden, adds a layer of dark humour. Troy is vicious, sick, and twisted–a shitshow about to happen. Using a handful of characters, Willeford shows us how Troy successfully dominates his pathetic criminal crew–a painter, a stripper and finally Stan. Troy Louden isn’t educated, and arguably isn’t that intelligent, but he possesses the psychopath’s understanding of how to manipulate:

I’m a professional criminal, what the shrinks call a criminal psychopath. What it means is, I know the difference between right and wrong and all that, but I don’t give a shit. That’s the official version. Most men in prison are psychopaths like me, and there are times when we don’t give a shit when we act impulsively. Ordinarily, I’m not impulsive because I always think a job out very carefully before I get around to doing it.

While the artist and disfigured stripper (wonder how that happened??) recruited by Troy comply with his demands out of fear, Troy seduces Stan into criminal activity:

I’m a criminal psychopath so I’m not responsible for the things I do.

Does that mean you’re crazy? You don’t look crazy, Troy–I mean John.”

Robert.”

“Robert. Of course, pulling that pistol on that man–“

Let me finish, Pop. I don’t have time to into all the ramifications of my personality, it’s too complex. I’ve been tested again and again, and it always comes out the same: Psychopath. And because I’m a criminal, I’m also a criminal psychopath. You follow me?

Yeah I think so, but if you aren’t crazy, what are you?”

It’s what I told you already. I know the difference between good and bad, but it makes no difference to me. If I see the right thing to do and want to do it, I do it. If I see the wrong thing and want to do it, I do that, too.

You mean you can’t help yourself then?”

Certainly I can. I’ll put it another way. I can help myself, but I don’t give a damn.”

And because you don’t give a damn, you’re a criminal psychopath, is that it?”

You’ve got it.

But why?”–Stanley made a sweeping movement with his arm–“don’t you give a damn?”

Because I’m a criminal pyschopath. Maybe when they give you some tests, you might could be one too.

Sideswipe is a marvellous entry in the Hoke Moseley saga. One of my favourite literary (or film) themes is how someone can lead a perfectly respectable life, never taking a step wrong, but then fate intervenes and suddenly that person, that life, is derailed. And it’s at that point, things always get interesting…. So derailment or sideswipe. … Stan’s moral seduction by Troy Louden is a perfect example of how one staid, retired, older man, once pried loose from his respectable life, spirals into an unfamiliar world. We follow Stan’s increasing, initially naïve involvement with Louden and also Hoke’s attempts to live a civilian life away from Miami Homicide. The violence, when it comes, is explosive and shocking. As I read this, there was one point when I asked myself if I found Stan’s actions credible. My initial response was ‘no,’ but Willeford had very carefully seeded a quirk in Stan’s behaviour which gives a glimpse at a pathological aspect of Stan’s personality. On the surface, we have this highly responsible citizen, an older man who has never put one foot wrong in his life, and yet he meets a career criminal and is so seduced by this man’s rhetoric that he abandons his way of life and goes to the dark side. So in the final assessment, yes, I could accept Stan’s choices and bad judgment–given his wife and son’s rejection, and that nasty quirk.

6 Comments

Filed under posts, Willeford, Charles

6 responses to “Sideswipe: Charles Willeford (1987)

  1. Sounds like a Pascal Garnier…

  2. They both push the boundaries when it comes to taboo subjects but Garnier has a more toxic vision (IMO) of the world–plus then there’s his fav. theme of death and decay which I don’t see in Willeford (You would love this author BTW)

  3. Have to get to more Willeford. Have you seen the new(ish) Burnt Orange Heresy movie, Guy?

  4. One of the best books I have read in a long time. Deadpan funny.

    My favourite bit…

    ‘You didn’t lead anybody back here did you?’

    ‘No I made sure of that but I didn’t mean to take the baby! I didn’t see it in the back when I got the car. There was this old lady with packages at the curb in Dadeland, and a younger woman was driving -‘ He was trying to catch his breath. ‘Then when the woman got out to help the old lady with the packages, I jumped in and drove off. The keys were in the car and the motor was running. Both those ladies came running after me and then a taxi chased me down Kendal Drive. I went through the red light and so did he, right on my back. All the way down the Palmetto to Miller -‘

    ‘What Baby?’ Troy said, going over to the NewYorker and opening the back door. ‘Oh shit!’ he said as he looked at the baby strapped in its car- seat in the back.

    ‘I never looked in the back Troy, there wasn’t time, I just took the car, cause I only had a second or two to get into it and go. He didn’t even start crying until I got onto Kendal Drive.’

    ‘This is a nice car, James, exactly what I wanted, but it is useless to us now…’

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