by Charles Willeford
I used to be a big fan of the Vintage Crime/Black Lizard imprint, and just thinking about names like Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain, and Jim Thompson can still put a tough guy's grin on my book guy's face. Willeford, who was new to me but is a known quantity in pulp fiction circles, doesn't seem up to that pantheon level here, but his Burnt Orange Heresy isn't a bad read either. Narrated by smug Palm Beach art critic James Figueras in the autobiography of a sicko style popularized by Jim Thompson, the novel starts out as a sleek heist piece grounded in the world of contemporary art before turning into the confession of something much more sinister. Along the way, Figueras takes various often-bitchy potshots at both the South Florida merchants who peddle art and the international artists and critics who shape public perception of it (in one of my favorite moments, a character who's supposed to be a legendarily-reclusive French avant-garde painter in hiding in Florida caps off a discussion of Marcel Duchamp by offering a choice of TV dinners--turkey, Salisbury steak, or enchilada, tamale, and Spanish rice--to his uninvited guests). I didn't really buy the logic behind the big criminal finale, but if you're looking for a 144-page crime novel with attitude and the occasional laugh, you could do a whole lot worse.
(NB: This version of The Burnt Orange Heresy is OOP. Others are available in an assortment of garish colors. For more on Willeford, check out Marshall Jon Fisher's short piece on "The Unlikely Father of Miami Crime Fiction" here.)