. Teenage hobo
. Decorated soldier
Willeford enlisted in the army at the age of 16 and spent the next twenty years as an on-and-off soldier, publishing his first three crime fiction novels while he was still enlisted. He was a tank commander during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Willeford finally resigned in 1956 and wrote paperback originals throughout the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in such masterworks as Pick-Up and The Woman Chaser. In the late 1950s he moved to Florida, where he lived for the rest of his life and where most of the plots of his novels take place.
He earned a GED in 1958, at age 39, and was a professor of English at the University of Miami by 1964. In the early 1970s he moved to hardcover, publishing the ambitious The Burnt Orange Heresy and penning The Shark-Infested Custard, one of his very best novels. Custard was deemed too depressing to publish in the mid-1970s and was only published in 1993, five years after his death. Disappointed by the poor reception of his books, Willeford retreated to teaching, literary criticism and writing nonfiction for almost a decade.
He tried making a comeback in 1984 and came up with, surprisingly, the biggest hit of his career up to that point, Miami Blues, and his most popular character, Hoke Moseley. Three more Moseley novels followed over the next four years, interspersed with two volumes of Willeford's memoirs, Something About a Soldier and I Was Looking for a Street. Willeford died in 1988, while working on the adaptation of Miami Blues with director George Armitage, which resulted in the 1990 movie featuring Alec Baldwin's best performance and co-starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Fred Ward.
Like most crime fiction writers of his era, Willeford's novels are filled with losers and psychos, but what sets him apart from the rest is not only the sophisticated existential conundrums he comes up with, but the rare amount of compassion, not to mention gallows humor, he brings to the most gruesome situations. Willeford never fails to recognize the humanity in every one of his anti-heros and to zero in on the smallest nuances of mood and emotion. His sixteen novels are one of the most remarkable outputs in American pulp fiction.
After his death Willeford remains more popular in Europe than he is in his home country. Although his work is constantly kept in print in the United Kingdom, as of this writing all but two of Willeford's novels are out of print in the United States.
Major works, some published posthumously:
High Priest of California (1953)
Honey Gal / The Black Mass of Brother Springer (1958)
Lust Is a Woman (1958)
The Woman Chaser (1960)
The Whip Hand (1961)
Understudy for Love (1961)
No Experience Necessary (1962)
The Machine in Ward Eleven (1963)
The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971)
The Hombre from Sonora (1971)
Miami Blues (1984)
New Hope for the Dead (1985)
Something About a Soldier (1986)
The Way We Die Now (1988)
I Was Looking for a Street (1988)
The Shark-Infested Custard (1993)