I came to Fred Willard’s work back to front as it were, discovering him through his fiction before realising he was such a prolific film and TV actor. Willard only wrote two books. Both are noir crime novels and both are original, highly entertaining and well worth reading. The main characters are not so much hard-boiled as hard-bitten, they’ve made mistakes and learned from their criminal pasts, and get pulled back into the game by the lure of one last job.
Down on Ponce is the first, the tale of ex-dope-smuggler Sam Fuller’s time laying low on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. A job emerges, a crew of apparently hopeless street characters assemble – a voiceless cancer survivor, a paraplegic, a madman. Together they plan to rip off the biggest crime boss on the area and escape to better lives. Of course, nothing survives contact with the enemy and their plans for a bloodless scam unravel in the face of true criminal insanity.
There’s an unexpected tenderness among all the dry wit, twists and turns, set-backs and violence. Willard’s characters care for each other, they understand they are different and not only accept each other’s differences and disadvantages, they work with them too. Down on Ponce starts to wander a little as it approaches the final acts, there are few debut novels that don’t, but it soon gets its feet back under itself for a superb ending.
Willard’s second book is the gloriously titled Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac. Once again Willard has a misfit crew pitched against a mixed opposition of schemers and highly dangerous operators, this time on the decaying fringes of CIA covert ops. Willard really finds his style with this book, short chapters, quick changes of scene, a book written as if it’s filled with cinematic jump-cuts.
This time also the story as better balanced between the multiple narratives. Once again our crew are spiraling in on the big score, but other sharks patrol these waters too, and some are highly competent.
As the title promises, the book has a dry and cynical humour. Ponce had that too, but here again it’s better developed and better used. Everything is turned up to eleven and Willard is pushing for twelve. The secondary characters are by turns sinister, ludicrous, pathetic, and deadly. And again there’s that unexpected tenderness in the character’s emotional lives. Well, some of them, most of the others are incapable of finding that and perhaps that was Willard’s point.
Willard’s book are convoluted and intricate but the plots never become confusing. There’s always an ‘X’ on the map that everyone is, by hook or by crook, working their way towards, determines to be the first in, or if not at least the last standing. While there might be no good guys (or gals) there are those who are less worse, and isn’t burning down the really bad guys and getting away with it something we all occasionally dream of?
Both books I suspect are out of print. To my surprise Down on Ponce is available on Kindle. I think Princess Naughty should be too, it’s the better book. There is, however, a decent second hand market for the print versions of both books. Go get ‘em.