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The Shark-Infested Custard

The Shark-Infested Custard

by Charles Willeford

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From the master of Miami noir comes this tale of four regular guys living in a singles apartment building who experience firsthand that there's more than one type of heat in Miami.

Larry Dolman is a rather literal minded ex-cop who now works private security. Eddie Miller is an airline pilot who's studying to get his real estate license. Don Luchessi is a silver


From the master of Miami noir comes this tale of four regular guys living in a singles apartment building who experience firsthand that there's more than one type of heat in Miami.

Larry Dolman is a rather literal minded ex-cop who now works private security. Eddie Miller is an airline pilot who's studying to get his real estate license. Don Luchessi is a silver salesman who's separated from his wife but too Catholic to get a divorce. Hank Norton is a drug company rep who gets four times as many dames as any of the other guys. They are all regular guys who like to drink, play cards, meet broads, and shoot a little pool. But when a friendly bet goes horribly awry, they find themselves with two dead bodies on their hands and a homicidal husband in the wings—and acting more like hardened criminals than upstanding citizens.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Nobody writes like Charles Willeford. . . . He is an original—funny, weird and wonderful." —James Crumley

"If you are looking for a master's insight into the humid decadence of South Florida . . . nobody does that as well as Mr. Willeford." —The New York Times Book Review

"Willeford has a marvelously deadpan way with losers on both sides of the law." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Barnes & Noble Review
What begins as a silly bet between four single men quickly turns into an out-of-control criminal plot involving two dead bodies and a homicidal husband. From the late Charles Willeford (Sideswipe, New Hope for the Dead, et al.), another Miami noir classic comes to light.

Larry Dolman, Eddie Miller, Don Luchessi, and Hank Norton are all successful middle-aged men living in the Dade Towers, a new singles-only apartment complex in Miami. Besides drinking a little too much on occasion and spending their free time playing pool and pursuing women, the fun-loving quartet are hardly what you would call hardened criminals. But then an innocent bet -- over whether or not pharmaceutical salesman Norton can pick up a woman at a drive-in showing a horror-flick marathon -- goes terribly wrong. Now the men must hide the bodies of a 13-year old girl (who has just overdosed in Norton's car) and her overbearing pusher (whom Luchessi has shot), while finding a way to continue living the good life in Miami, even as real-life issues intrude.

The Shark-Infested Custard (the punch line to this old Miami riddle: What is very sweet, bright yellow, and extremely dangerous?) is a fitting title for this downright weird novel. Both a dark comedy and a shockingly cold-hearted crime fiction thriller, Willeford's romp through 1970s Miami -- although somewhat dated -- is as amusing as it is disturbing. Paul Goat Allen
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This dated and nihilistic tale from Willeford ( Miami Blues and Sideswipe ), who died in 1988 just as his largely underground reputation was drawing mainstream attention, leads readers into some nasty territory. The protagonists, including the narrator, are four young men of the 1970s, swingers who live in a singles-only apartment block in Miami and seem at the outset pretty harmless. Gradually, however, through bad luck, greed and and even innocence, each is corrupted, stripped bare and revealed as utterly corruptible, weak, misogynist and lost. The plot begins as they bet on successfully picking up a woman; the bet leads to farce about hiding a dead body, which then necessitates another murder. One falls in love with a married woman and tangles with the man she lives with; another returns to the marriage he hates and then schemes his way out of it. As the years pass, the four move out of their original lifestyle but all retain some gruesome habits. Female readers especially may find many of these pages sad and shocking. But, especially in his early noir period, Willeford never aimed for cute; the legions of fans he snared with his later Hoke Mosely quartet of novels are in for a dark ride. Fair warning. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Longtime writer Willeford did not gain popularity until the 1980s, when he wrote the four Hoke Moseley novels, beginning with Miami Blues (Bantam, 1985. reprint). Now, five years after his death, a long-forgotten work is being published. It tells the story of four young men who live in a Miami complex and become friends. One night, as a result of a bet, a 14-year-old girl who is picked up by one of the friends dies of an overdose. Her drug supplier is then killed and their bodies left in his car in a parking lot. The men must play out their roles in a friendship held together by trust and the events of that fatal night. The novel is decidedly not polished and is a trifle dated but has that distinctive prose touch and twist-of-fate ending that are Willeford's trademarks. Recommended for general collections.-- Jo Ann Vicarel, Cleveland Heights-University Heights P.L., Ohio

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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Read an Excerpt


It started out as kind of a joke, and then it wasn't funny any more because money became involved. Deep down, nothing about money is funny.

There were four of us at the pool: Eddie Miller, Don Luchessi, Hank Norton, and me— Larry Dolman. It was just beginning to get dark, but the air was still hot and muggy and there was hardly any breeze. We were sitting around the circular, aluminum table in our wet trunks. Hank had brought down a plastic pitcher of vodka martinis, a cup of olives, and a half-dozen Dixie cups. That is one of the few rules at Dade Towers; it's all right to eat and drink around the pool so long as only plastic or paper cups and plates are used.

Dade Towers is a singles only apartment house, and it's only one year old. What I mean by "singles only" is that only single men and women are allowed to rent here. This is a fairly recent idea in Miami, but it has caught on fast, and a lot of new singles only apartments are springing up all over Dade County. Dade Towers doesn't have any two-or three-bedroom apartments at all. If a resident gets married, or even if a man wants to bring a woman in to live with him, out he goes. They won't let two men share an apartment, either. That's a fruitless effort to keep gays out. But there are only two or three circumspect gays in the 120-apartment complex, and they don't bother anyone in the building. The rents are on the high side, and all apartments are rented unfurnished. The rules are relaxed for women, and two women are allowed to share one apartment. That rule is reasonable, because women in Miami don't earn as much money as men. And by letting two women share a pad, the male/female ratio is evened out. So some of the one-bedrooms have two stewardesses, or two secretaries, living together. Other women, who have more money, like school teachers, young divorcees, and nurses, usually make do with efficiencies. If a man wanted to, he could get all of the women he wanted simply by hanging around the pool.

Under different circumstances, I don't think Don, Hank, Eddie and I would have become such good friends. But the four of us were all charter members, so to speak, the first four tenants to move into Dade Towers when it opened. And now, after a solid year together, we were tight. We swam in the pool, went to movies together, asked each other for advice on the broads we took out, played poker one or two nights a month, and had a good time, in general, without any major fights or arguments. In other words, we truly lived the good life in Miami.

Eddie Miller is an ex-Air Force pilot. After he got out of the service, he managed to get taken on as a 727 co-pilot. Flying is just about all Eddie cares about, and eventually he'll be a captain. In the meantime (he only flies 20 hours a week), Eddie studies at the University of Miami for his state real estate exam. That's what many of the airline pilots do in their spare time; they sell real estate. And some of them make more money selling real estate than they do as pilots, even though real estate is a cutthroat racket in Dade County.

Hank Norton has an A.B. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. He has a beautiful job in Miami as a detail man, or salesman, for a national pharmaceutical firm. He only works about ten or fifteen hours a week, when he works at all, and he still has the best sales record in the U.S. for his company. As the top detail man in the field the year before, his company gave him a two-week, all-expenses paid, vacation to Acapulco. He is a good-looking guy, with carefully barbered blond hair and dark, Prussian-blue eyes. He is the best cocksman of the four, too. Hank probably gets more strange in a single month than the rest of us get in a year. He has an aura of noisy self-confidence, and white flashing teeth. His disingenuous smile works as well on the doctors he talks with as it does on women. He makes about twenty-five thousand a year, and he has the free use of a Galaxie, which is exchanged for a new model every two years. His Christmas bonus has never been less than two thousand, he claims.

Don Luchessi makes the most money. He is the Florida rep for a British silverware firm, and he could make much more money than he does if the firm in Great Britain could keep up with his orders. They are always two or three months behind in production and shipping, and Don spends a lot of time apologizing about the delays to the various department and jewelry stores he sells to. What with the fantastic increase of the Miami Cuban population, and the prosperity of the Cubans in general, Don's business has practically doubled in the last four years. Every Cuban who marries off a daughter (as well as her friends and relatives, of course) wants the girl to start off her married life with an expensive silver service. Nevertheless, even though Don makes a lot more money than the rest of us, he is paying child support for his seven-year-old daughter and giving his wife a damned generous monthly allowance besides. As a Catholic he is merely legally separated, not divorced, and although he hates his wife, we all figure that Don will take her back one of these days because he misses his daughter so much. At any rate, because of the money he gives to his wife, by the end of the year he doesn't average out with much more dough than the rest of us.

Insofar as I am concerned, what I considered to be a bad break at the time turned out to be fortuitous. I had majored in police science at the University of Florida, and I had taken a job as a policeman, all gung-ho to go, in Florence City, Florida, two weeks after I graduated. Florence City isn't too far from Orlando, and the small city has tripled in population during the last few years because of Disney World. After two years on the force I was eligible to take the sergeant's exam, which I passed, the first time out, with a 98. They were just starting to build Disney World at the time, and I knew that I was in a growth situation. The force would grow along with Florence City, and because I had a college degree I knew that I would soon be a lieutenant, and then a captain, within a damned short period of patrolman apprenticeship.

So here I was, all set for a sergeancy after only two years on the force. None of the other three men who took the exam with me was even close to my score. But what happened, I got caught with the new ethnic policy. Joe Persons, a nice enough guy, but a semiliterate near-moron, who had failed the exam for five years in a row, finally made a minimum passing score of 75. So the Board made him a sergeant instead of me because he was black. I was bitter, of course, but I was still willing to live with the decision and wait another year. Joe had been on the Florence City force for ten years, and if you took seniority into account, why not let him have it? I could afford to wait another year. But what happened was incredible. The chief, a sharp cracker from Bainbridge, Georgia, called me in and told me that I would be assigned to Sergeant Persons fulltime to do his paperwork for him. I got hot about it, and quit then and there, without taking the time to think the matter out. What the chief was doing, in a tacit way, was making it up to me. In other words, the chief hadn't liked the Board's decision to make Joe Persons a sergeant instead of me any more than I had. By giving me the opportunity to do the sergeant's actual work, which Persons was incapable of handling, he was telling me that the next vacancy was as good as mine, and laying the groundwork to get rid of Sergeant Persons for inefficiency at the same time.

I figured all this out later, but by that time it was too late. I had resigned, and I was too proud to go back and apologize to the chief after some of the angry things I had said to him.

To shorten the story, although it still makes me sore to think about the raw deal I was handed in Florence City, I came down to Miami and landed a job with National Security as a senior security officer. In fact, they could hardly hire me quickly enough. National has offices in every major city in the United States, and some day—in a much shorter period than it would have taken me to become the chief of police in Florence City—I'll be the director of one of these offices. Most of the security officers that National employs are ex-cops, retired detectives usually, but none of them can write very well. They have to dictate their reports, which are typed later by the girls in the pool. If any of these reports ever got out cold, without being edited and rewritten, we would lose the business of the department store industry receiving that report in five minutes flat. That is what I do: I put these field reports into some semblance of readability. My boss, The Colonel, likes the way I write, and often picks up phrases from my reports. Once, when I wrote to an operator in Jacksonville about a missing housewife, I told him to "exhaust all resources." For about a month after that, The Colonel was ending all of his phone conversations with, "Exhaust all resources, exhaust all resources."

So down at National Security, I am a fair-haired boy. Four years ago I started at $10,000, and now I'm making $15,000. I can also tell, now, from the meetings that they have been asking me to sit in on lately, "just to listen," The Colonel said, that they are grooming me for a much better job than I have already.

If this were a report for National Security I would consider this background information as much too sketchy, and I would bounce it back to the operator. But this isn't a report, it's a record, and a record is handy to keep in my lock-box at the bank.

Who knows? I might need it some day. In Florida, the guilty party who spills everything to State's Attorney first gets immunity....


We were on the second round of martinis when we started to talk about picking up women. Hank, being the acknowledged authority on this subject, threw out a good question. "Where, in Miami," Hank said, "is the easiest place to pick up some strange? I'm not saying the best, I'm talking about the easiest place."

"Big Daddy's," Eddie said.

I didn't say so, but I agreed with Eddie in my mind. There are Big Daddy's lounges all over Miami Billboards all around Dade County show a picture of a guy and a girl sitting close together at a bar, right next to the bearded photo of Big Daddy himself, with a caption beneath the picture in lower case Art type: "Big Daddy's— where you're never alone...."The message is clear enough. Any man who can't score in a Big Daddy's lounge has got a major hang-up of some kind.

"No," Hank said, pursing his lips. "1 admit you can pick up a woman in Big Daddy's, but you don't always score. Right? In fact, you might pick up a loser, lay out five bucks or so in drinks, and then find her missing when you come back from taking a piss."

This was true enough; it had happened to me once, although I had never mentioned it to anyone.

"Think, now," Hank said. "Give me one surefire place to pick up a woman, where you'll score, I'll say, at least nine times out of ten."

"Bullshit," Don said. "Nobody scores nine times out of ten, including you, Hank."

"I never said I did," Hank said. "But I know of one place where you can score nine times out of ten. Any one of us at this table."

"Let's go," I said, leaping to my feet.

They all laughed.

"Sit down, Fuzz," Hank said. "Just because there is such a place, it doesn't mean you'll want to go. Come on, you guys— think.

"Is this a trick question?" Eddie said.

"No," Hank said, without smiling, "it's legitimate. And I'm not talking about call girls either, that is, if there're any left in Miami."

"Coconut Grove is pretty good," Eddie said.

"The Grove's always good," Hank agreed, "but it's not a single place, it's a group of different places. Well, I'm going to tell you anyway, so I'll spare you the suspense. The easiest place to pick up a fast lay in Miami is at the V.D. clinic."

We all laughed.

"You're full of it, Hank," Don said. "A girl who's just picked up the clap is going to be turned off men and sex for a longtime."

"That's what I would have thought," Hank said. "But apparently it doesn't work that way. It was in the Herald the other day. The health official at the clinic was bitching about it. I don't remember his name, but I cut out the piece and I've got it up in my apartment. He said that most of the girls at the clinic are from sixteen to twenty-two, and the guys and girls get together in the waiting room to exchange addresses and phone numbers because they know they're safe. They've all been treated recently, so they know there's no danger of catching anything. Anyway, according to the Herald, they've brought in a psychologist to study the problem. The health official wants to put in separate waiting rooms to keep the men and women apart."

"Would you pick up a girl in a V.D. clinic?" Don asked Hank.

Hank laughed. "Not unless I was pretty damned hard up, I wouldn't. Okay. I'll show you guys the clipping later. Here's a tougher question. Where's the hardest place in Miami to pick up a woman?"

"The University of Miami Student Union," Eddie said solemnly.

We all laughed.

"Come on, Eddie," Hank said. "Play the game. This is a serious question."

What People are Saying About This

James Crumley
"Nobody writes like Charle Willeford...he is an original - funny and weird and wonderful."
Tony Hillerman
"Well! He gives you a grim and gritty Miami...The viewpoint of a most fascinating and asocial trash."
Elmore Leonard
"No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford."

Meet the Author

Charles Willeford was a highly decorated (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Luxembourg Croix de Guerre) tank commander with the Third Army in World War II. He was also a professional horse trainer, boxer, radio announcer, and painter. Willeford, the author of twenty novels, created the Miami detective series featuring Hoke Moseley, which includes Miami Blues, Sideswipe, The Way We Die Now, and New Hope for the Dead. He died in 1988.

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