Saturday, July 02, 2011

The real world meets The Shark-Infested Custard

I copy-edited a story this week at work about new rules governing the number of consecutive hours physicians can work during the residency stage of their professional careers.

The new rules say 16 rather than as many as 30 without a break, and not everyone is happy about the change. I thought of this when I came to a passage in Charles Willeford's novel The Shark-Infested Custard. The viewpoint character is Hank, a pharmaceutical salesman who muses upon the tendency of doctors to abuse drugs:
"`I can handle it,' they thought, and they would pop a bennie to get through a six a.m. operation, and then another bennie at ten a.m., to get through their hospital rounds, and then, because they were bone-tired, and beginning to get sleepy by one or two p.m., and they had an office full of waiting patients to get through, they would take a couple of more bennies that afternoon. And so it would go, with emergency calls at night, and the first thing they knew they would be hooked--on bennies, or dexies, or nose candy, and eventually, on horse."
My early impressions of this book are that Willeford does a stunning job of portraying the lives of working men in the United States, and that he paints a convincing picture of Miami. (The book would make a nice companion for Stuart M. Kaminsky's Lew Fonesca stories, set in Sarasota, Florida.)  The prelude to Hank's attempted seduction of a woman who is not what she seems goes on a bit too long, but that's a quibble.

Here's a bit about Willeford at Wikipedia. And here are your questions: Who else has written about working men in ways that make you say, "He's got it!"? David Mamet? Donald Westlake? And has any novel ever had a better title than The Shark-Infested Custard?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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19 Comments:

Anonymous Linkmeister said...

In crime fiction I can't think of any other than police procedurals, of which there are thousands.

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman did a good job. Studs Terkel's Working was great, but it was in the workers' own words anyway, being oral history. I suspect when you say Mamet you're thinking of Glengarry Glen Ross.

July 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, I'm thinking of Glengarry Glen Ross and for Westlake, The Ax. Death of a Salesman was naturally in the back of my mind as well.

One of the four guys at the heart of this Willeford novel is an ex-cop now working as an administrator in a security company, but that's as close as the book gets to cops, at least in its first two-thirds.

July 03, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

The title sounds "cozy" to me. I'd probably run.

July 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A million monkeys could spend a millions years reading this book, and none would call it cozy.

July 03, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Perhaps not. Would you take a monkey's word?
I'm just reacting to the title.

July 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or to a part of it, I'd guess. Custard is a cozy word; shark is not.

July 03, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

When it comes to book titles, I favor: THE WOODEN LEG OF INSPECTOR ANDERS by Marshall Browne.

For me, one of the greatest book titles ever.

It's about an Italian anti-terrorist cop who figures out a novel way to get rid of some annoying mafiosi. Very good debut of several years ago by an almost unheard of Australian writer.

Working men in books?

Dick Francis wrote about jockeys, race track touts and grunts, truck drivers and journalists better than just about anyone. He also wrote about actors and artists, bankers and glass makers, etc. They work too - right?

I always felt that he got it all just right.

Outside of genre, one of my favorites is Richard Russo. I love his way with words. His working men all have the bite of truth to them.

July 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a good one, and I've still never read Marshall Browne, for reasons I can't quite figure out.

I hadn't thought of track people as working stiffs, but why not?

July 03, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

THE WOODEN LEG OF INSPECTOR ANDERS also caught my attention. I wasn't all that thrilled with the book, though.

Francis impressed me enormously. I had resisted reading about jockeys and horses for decades because I thought that would get very tiresome. But Francis manages to make each novel work by the trick of switching protagonists and plots, by letting the horse-racing world recede to the background in some books and play major roles in others, by switching professions of his protagonists, by taking them to exotic places, and by switching crimes frequently. And still there is always the common denominator: the good man risking all and suffering all to do the right thing.

July 04, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

I.J. You 'got' Dick Francis just right. Perfect.

It is exactly the idea I have of his work: the 'good man risking all and suffering to do the right thing.' Yes. That was his 'shtick' and he did it superbly.

That's why I love his books so much.

A few years ago I wrote a tribute to Francis for a now defunct website, www.mysteryink.com and wonder of wonders I received a thank you letter from Francis himself. It is one of my treasures.

July 04, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Oh, how nice, Yvette! Not all famous authors are so considerate.

July 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose Fracis' reputation took a small dip in the years after speculation started that he did not write his own books, and before the books began to acknowledge his son as a collaborator.

All right, you two Francis-lovers, any suggestion about which books to read first if I decide to read Francis?

July 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I forgot to mention that I know almost nothing about horeseracing -- and that precisely for that reason, I might enjoy a book that offered a vivid a convincing look at racetrack life as it told its story.

July 04, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Francis collaborated with his wife, who did much of the research for him. I think he did the actual writing. After she died (they were both quite old by then) he stopped writing for a while. When he started again, his son had stepped in to help. Since his son was prominently mentioned, I assume that he did a lot more than his mother had done.
In any case, I would start with one of the earlier books. The very late ones (SHATTERED and after are not as good).

July 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. It's easy to think of Francis as a relic because he was so prolific for so long. But he won awards, and he was massively popular, so he's probably worth a look. Maybe I'll make Dick Francis post around the time of the Breeder's Cup or one of the Triple Crown races.

July 04, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

He won two Edgars, at least, and was nominated several times. He was no slouch.

IT was through Francis that I realized how tough jockeys have necessarily to be. They are short, but they are as strong as, if not stronger,than any big behemoth.

I began with TO THE HILT, whose hero is is an artist living in Scotland creating paintings of golf courses as a kind of metaphor for life. He comes down into England proper when he's threatened and realizes...well, you'll have to read to find out. It has very little to do with horses or racing - they're there, but on the periphery if I'm remembering correctly. One of my favorite scenes is actually one in which the protagonist describes his paint mixing technique as he prepares to put paint to canvas. You hadda' be there. This is a book in which the sense of nasty evil permeates and intensifies as you go along. I LOVED it!

I also recommend LONGSHOT, COME TO GRIEF, DECIDER, HOT MONEY, DEAD CERT, FLYING FINISH, WHIP HAND and SMOKESCREEN, among many MANY others.

For my money, among the early books there is only one real dud: TWICE SHY - hated that one.

The rest are good. But only up to SHATTERED. As I.E. says.

You did ask, Peter. :)

July 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I wonder if Dick Francis was a temperamental relative of Peter Temple's. Temple, too, offers convincingly detailed examinations of several aspects of the horseracing industry but also of cabinetmaking, a pursuit and therapy of his character Jack Irish (your remark about paint-mixing reminded me of this.)

July 04, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

As a person who worships at the altar of the Thoroughbred, I gobbled up Dick Francis's early books. His descriptive, visceral passages of horse races are unmatched. But by the early 1980s he had become more formulaic and I found his protagonists who were not directly involved with horses (jockeys, trainers) to be less convincing, less interesting. When the books went into "written by committee" I gave up. For anyone wanting to dip into them for the first time, I would suggest one of the first six, see here.

Peter, re your wondering "if Dick Francis was a temperamental relative of Peter Temple's" I would say No. Temple looks at the world of horse racing from the perspective of a big-time horseplayer. Not that Jack doesn't like horses, or feel sad when one snaps a leg during a race, but Francis's early protagonists lived and breathed horses. People who would want to spend their time with horses even if betting was not part of the game.

Francis's books are more in the Golden Age whodunit vein. Puzzle mysteries with clues scattered along the way. Quite different from Temple's peeling back of layers to reveal the crime a little at a time.

July 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. It appears that the consensus favors Dick Francis's earlier novels.

July 05, 2011  

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