IN REFERENCE TO Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard once said, "Nobody writes a better crime novel." Filled with outcasts and misfits, liberally dosed with black humor and jarring violence, Willeford's books -- 18 novels before he died in 1988 -- are considered masterworks of the genre. Two of his best, Cockfighter and Miami Blues, were adapted into fine films. These stories, like the author himself, were "hard-boiled" back when that now-hackneyed term really meant something. And they still are. First published in 1971 as The Hombre from Sonora and just reissued under Willeford's original title, The Difference sets the author's gnarled sensibilities and flawed characters in the 1880s Arizona Territory.
The plot is conventional: while in boarding school in Phoenix, Johnny Shaw learns in a letter from the local sheriff that his father is dead. Returning home to southern Arizona to claim the land left to him, Shaw becomes embroiled in a dispute with the Reardon family -- Dad and three sons, Kurt, Cabe and Onyx. Shaw kills Onyx and flees. Pursued by the rest of the Reardon clan, Shaw finds an unlikely ally in a blacksmith, Jake Dover, who knew and respected Shaw's father. Dover hides Shaw from the Reardons, and teaches him how to use a gun with speed and precision. Shaw then goes to Sonora, where he's the guest of a patron, another friend of his father's. Finally, Shaw returns to Arizona for the showdown, which involves not only the Reardons but also Dover, Dover's daughter, and the sheriff.
Willeford knows Arizona and the border. In 1933, he was an orphan and self-described "road kid," riding freight trains back and forth between Yuma, Tucson, Douglas and El Paso. While living in a transient camp in Douglas, the 14-year-old Willeford crossed the border into Agua Prieta, Sonora, where he had his first taste of alcohol (mescal), and his first experience with a woman (a prostitute). After passing out drunk on the street, the young hobo's clothes were stolen. Fearing arrest by the authorities, he crossed the border back into the United States illegally, nude, with lights from the Douglas smelter as his guide.
With such firsthand knowledge, it might seem surprising how little regional detail Willeford provides in The Difference (he uses a curious mix of real and fictional town names, for example). But geography isn't the point; character is.
Willeford's protagonist is also his narrator, and since the pivotal event -- the killing of Onyx Shaw -- had no other witnesses, Shaw's veracity and motives are open to question. Indeed, Shaw's professed virtue is at sharp odds with his actions. Those actions are made especially jarring by Willeford's terse prose, which adds impact to his character's sudden, simple bursts of violence and cruelty. At one point during his ride south, Shaw stumbles upon a man left to die in the wilderness:
He was an old Indian, with a crinkled face like a baked apple...As I came toward him he began to tremble, and I began to laugh...Inasmuch as he was going to die soon anyway, I decided to practice my draw on him. I paced off approximately fifteen yards from the old man, standing with my back to the fire, whirled, drew and fanned my pistol, pointing along the barrel at his belly with my forefinger...As he fell over sideways, the hole in his back was exposed, and it was almost five times as big as the hole in his stomach. His left leg fell into the fire as he rolled over, so I dragged him clear and up the canyon for about thirty yards. His ancient body was as light as a child's.
(Later, while pondering a new career, the men he's killed, and the notches on his gun, Shaw reminds himself that since he was going to die anyway, the old Indian in the canyon didn't count.)
Willeford's words are just as unsentimental when Shaw describes his own travails. Thrown from horseback by a gun-shy mare, Shaw lands on his head:
I continued to lie there weakly. About then I realized where the gurgling and bubbling noises were coming from; the noises were inside my own head! A bone or something or other was cracked way inside my head on the left side, near my inner ear. And the gurgling noise was the rushing blood in a vein flowing by my hearing canal like a murmuring underground river. The buzzing, of course, had to be caused by the steady vibration of a cracked bone or a piece of twisted gristle inside my head.
As we learn more about Shaw's nature, we can see Willeford's single exclamation point in the above passage for what is: not an expression of fear or panic, but a simple, aw-shucks punctuation of surprise and annoyance.
A few implausibilities in the plot -- it seems absurd that no one can see through Dover's thin disguise, for example -- don't cause problems. Readers who approach The Difference as a simple Western thriller will forgive such minor implausibilities; and those who read it as something deeper won't care.
Regarding The Difference, Willeford once gave a student the sound advice to "read this book, but don't understand it too fast." Morality play disguised as genre potboiler, The Difference is a thinking-man's Western.