THE WOMAN CHASER by Charles Willeford (1960)

Review by Mike Dennis, 2010

Los Angeles, 1960.  The pinnacle of the California dream.  Cars are king, and the king of the used cars is Richard Hudson, recent transplant from San Francisco.  That’s the backdrop for The Woman Chaser, a fine noir novel by Charles Willeford.

Hudson, a Type A personality if ever there was one, regards himself as one of the greatest used car salesmen of all time, and he’s not too far wrong.  He really knows all sides of the business, as he opens up a Los Angeles lot for Honest Hal Parker, the leading used car dealer in San Francisco.  No angle escapes Hudson’s sharp eye, no customer gets anything less than his highest-pressure pitch, and no car goes unsold.

He makes plenty of money, lives well, tips generously, and you would think he’s hit his lick.  But no.  There’s an itch that he can’t quite scratch.  He longs to be in the movie business.  The position of writer-producer-director will do just fine, thank you.

His stepfather (who is only seven years older) is a blacklisted Hollywood director, and one night Richard approaches him with an idea for a script.  It can’t miss, Richard says, turning on his salesman’s charm.  And before you can say “Lights, camera, action!”, the two of them are trying to get his script turned into a movie.

The novel is divided not into chapters, but sections separated by movie script jargon (dissolve, cut to, fadeout, etc), and it’s somewhat unsettling, but that’s why Willeford is so good.  He can use a pedestrian story as an overlay, or even as a decoy, while he barely hints at the swampy mess that is the human condition festering underneath.  You just know that, despite Hudson’s having made it in the used car business, he’s doomed as a human being.

The title implies that Hudson spends most of his time hitting on women, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Women pop up here and there in the novel, but in fact, he’s wracked with guilt over his own lack of real masculine desire.  It bothers him that he’s too preoccupied with business to get bogged down with women.  And that includes his mother, an oddball ex-ballerina who is a book all by herself.

In reality, Hudson doesn’t need a woman to lead him down the road to perdition.  Like so many of Willeford’s protagonists, he can get there on his own.

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  1. Mike. I read a wonderful bio on CW. Don Herron’s Willeford (1997), Dennis McMillan Publications).

    Very interesting guy and a great writer.

  2. Patti Abbott

    This is a new one for me. Adore him.

  3. Mike Dennis

    Charlie–I don’t know much about Willeford’s personal life, but I’ll bet it was interesting.
    Patti–This is a really good book. The plot, as I say in the review, is almost a total decoy for what lies underneath.

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