UNDERSTUDY FOR DEATH by Charles Willeford


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Hard Case reprints a real rarity for fans of Florida noir stylist Willeford (1919-1988; The Shark-Infested Custard, 1993, etc.): a barely-published paperback original from 1961.

Why would Marion C. Huneker leave her husband, Jack, a cement and wrought iron contractor, a farewell note and then kill their two children and herself? J.C. Curtis, Lake Springs Morning News reporter Richard Hudson’s hard-bitten managing editor, wants the answers Marion’s suicide note doesn’t give. Hudson, who fancies himself a playwright even though he’s been toiling away on draft after draft of his blank-verse play The Understudy for years, isn’t much drawn to the story, but he’s not given much of a choice, either. So he sets about in a desultory way to figure out why a well-to-do matron of 30 would suddenly take her husband’s .22 to her kids and herself. His inquiries run into three roadblocks. First, asking questions of Marion Huneker’s friends and neighbors reveals nothing more fraught than a woman with many friends, interests, and plans for the immediate future. Second, Hudson is repeatedly distracted from the case by Marion’s friend Gladys Chatham and his own wife, Beryl, both of whom offer Willeford opportunities to describe torrid sex scenes in vintage 1961 prose; Beryl also provides a sad, comical, wholly unexpected subplot. Third, Hudson, who doesn’t get around to interviewing Jack Huneker until the next-to-last chapter, just isn’t as interested in the reasons for Marion’s death as he is in questions about his own relationships and his own writing—and therein lies the key to this self-reflexive little tale.

A treasure for Willeford fans, who’ll know not to expect a socko ending; a forgettable curio for most everyone else, who may well turn the last page feeling that they’re owed a refund.

Pub Date: July 17th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-78565-698-9
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2018


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