Wild Wives by Charles Willeford (Beacon, 1956)
Charles Willeford’s orginal title for this quirky private eye yarn was Until I Am Dead, but Beacon Books re-titled it Wild Wives as the seond part of a double book, the reprint of High Priest of California, which had originally appeared in 1953 as the second half of a Royal Giant digest number.
Since both novels are short — c. 30,000 words — they were suitable for one regular-sized 60,000 word paperback.
Wild Wives is dubbed a “First Award Novel” which a number of Beacons from 1956-1958 were, for whatever reason…one will note that Beacon misspelled the author’s name as “Williford.”
This is my first read of Charles Willeford; people have been recommending him to me for years. It takes me a while sometimes. He certainly has an interesting history as a writer. Out of the army, he fancied himself a San Francisco beatnik poet, publishing a chapbook in the mid-50s, then turning to novels at age 30, writing the first few in a cheap room at the Powell Hotel on weekends, soaking up the San Francisco lifestyle.
His aim, like many young pulp crime writers then, was Gold Medal, but his books were too short. He found a home at Royal Giant/Beacon, and later Newsstand Library. He wasn’t prolific. He used the money to pay for graduate school. He later went into college teaching, published more poetry and memoir, was re-discovered in the 1970s and 80s, and hit big time with the bestseller turn into a movie, Miami Blues. In his autumnal years, he enjoyed his re-discovery as a pulp master, wrote more books, and passed away in 1988, age 69.
Since I have not read any other Willefords yet, I cannot say, but have read that Wild Wives is unlike his other novels, being a more “conventional” noir/crime/gumshoe tale.
The narrator shamus is Jake Blake, San Fran wise-ass tough guy private eye. In the first chapter, a 15 year old girl points a water pistol at his head then lifts her skirt and bends over, asking to be spanked — already we know that Willeford’s writing is a bit…off-kilter…
Then a 26-year-old dame, Florenece Weintraub, walks into his office and asks him to help her escape from the two goons shadowing her, “bodyguards” hired by her wealthy father. He gets her away, they head to a jazz club/diner, have sex on a balcony, and call it a night, ending with Blake getting roughed up by the body guard goons.
There’s some sub-plots that pop up and are never resolved, as if placed there for future books, such as the 15-year-old girl and her 18-year-old brother, who is the lover of an elderly, gay art dealer who lives in the same hotel that Blake has a room and office space. The dealer wants to hire Blake to help him get rid of the possessive young lover, and maybe even have sex with Blake. Blake just laughs at that, pointing out:
Now, I really don’t object to homosexuals. It’s a big world and there’s room for everybody. The way some people prefer to make love is their business. not mine, and it seemed to me as the short blunt apex of a crazy triangle. (p 59)
Why doesn’t Blake see it coming that Florence is a whack-job? It’s pretty obvious, especially when he discovers that the “father” keeping goons on her tail is actually her elderly husband…
Willeford didn’t revisit the P.I. genre or this character…not sure if this was a good thing or not. It’s a quirky fun tale, though, full of crafty dialogue which may seem cliched these days.
Wild Wives has been reprinted many times in many editions, from Black Mask Books, Vintage Books, and a Re/Search special edition.