Charles Willeford’s protagonist in the Hoke Moseley novels (of which The Way We Die Now is the fourth and last) is an unlikely hero. A police detective in Miami, Moseley starts the series living alone in a seedy hotel, paying his way by acting as the hotel’s unofficial security guard. He is overweight, casually racist, a slob – and not much of a detective, either. The fact that he solves the cases is often down to luck, or the perpetrator giving themselves away.
As the series progresses, Moseley’s life changes. He is forced to move out of the hotel, and to take responsibility for his two teenage daughters, sent to him by his ex-wife. In Sideswipe, the third book in the series, Moseley suffers from what appears to be a nervous breakdown (although there’s also the suggestion that he may be faking it, to get away from his job). And when we meet him again in The Way We Die Now, he has returned to work, and is living with his Cuban ex-partner and her baby (which is not Moseley’s) and his two children. Despite making progress with a tricky cold case, Moseley is sent forcibly undercover to investigate the disappearance of migrant workers in the Florida Everglades, where he meets some very unpleasant people indeed.
What’s clear in The Way We Die Now (and the rest of the Hoke Moseley books) is that Willeford is not a writer interested in the minutiae of a police investigation. Unlike, say, Ed McBain, there’s little formal police process in the series. Rather than a great detective, where Moseley does excel is in his psychological understanding of the people he encounters. Like Willeford himself, Moseley’s main interest is in character, and in what drives individuals to behave in the way they do.
The Moseley books came at the end of a long writing career, one which began in the 1940s with the publication of Willeford’s first book of poetry. During World War Two, he served in the army as a tank commander and was highly decorated. It was here, and in his subsequent military career, stationed in the US and in Japan, that Willeford observed his fellow soldiers, and how they treated those perceived as weaker, less masculine than themselves. These are observations that find their way, some 30 years later, into the Moseley novels, and the smooth-talking, utterly ruthless psychopaths like Freddy Frenger and Tiny Bock that inhabit them – men who prey on those around them, and who pursue their own ends and desires with a twisted logic that is compelling and seductive, and utterly consistent within itself.
The Way We Die Now is a book driven by character. It’s as much about Moseley’s domestic arrangements as it is about his career as a detective; and when Moseley does go undercover, his assignment is initially mundane, and slow-moving. After a brief act of violence, it is quickly over, and Moseley then spends much of his time in a guesthouse, waiting for further orders. It’s an unusual take on the detective novel, and arguably a contemptuous one, playing as it does with some of the genre’s conventions. But the book also brims with energy and individuality, and contains enough surprises to keep the reader wondering where it will head next.
Willeford died the same year that The Way We Die Now was published. It’s not clear whether he intended it to be the last Hoke Moseley book (his attitude towards the character was always ambivalent, even though he made Willeford a large amount of money), but the novel does end with the sense that a new chapter in Moseley’s life is beginning. The four books document his return to the world, from a slob living alone in a hotel to the family man taking on responsibility (albeit minimal) for his daughters. Whilst it’s interesting to speculate what Willeford might have done with this character next, there’s already enough vitality and character in the four existing Hoke Moseley books to keep an attentive reader happy for some time.