The Burnt Orange Heresy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

ISBN: 0679732527
ISBN 13: 9780679732525
By: Charles Willeford

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Reader's Thoughts


This is the first Willeford book that I've read that was a bit of a dud to me (not counting the collection of posthumously published short stories). It starts slow, the middle is slow, the end is sort of exciting for like 3 pages, and then it's all slow again. I could not stand the narrator. And unlike with most of Willeford's other protagonists (none of whom are all that likeable) I couldn't find one aspect of Figueras that I could tolerate. I would not ever want to be in the same room as that dude, lest I get stuck listening to him pontificate about contemporary art, which--SPOILER ALERT--is what he does for the entire novel. SHUT UP YOU ARE BORING. I think maybe if he would have been developed a bit more into perhaps a Harvey Pekar-type I could have related to him a bit more. Not that one should ever really relate to Willeford's characters, but at least he'd be more well rounded and less of a droning asshole. The exciting three pages are good, but still not great, and not nearly enough to save this, although good enough to get it 2 stars versus 1. Also, the actual ending? HATED IT.And, seriously, Willeford, can I get like one female character who isn't deplorable? At this point, I'm not even asking for a strong female character, just one who does something aside from drink, have sex, ask annoying questions, and get in the way. I think I'm more of a fan of Willeford's later stuff. I like the ultra violence. And I like a crime gotten away with from time to time. And, yes, goddamnit, I like Hoke Moseley.


Willeford wrote this noir about an art critic trying to advance his career by taking advantage of a hermetic artist. The artist has built a juggernaut reputation on rarely exhibiting his work. The elements are goofy but the tone is dark deadpan. Instead of guns, dames, drugs, and jewels, Willeford's characters jockey for galleries, graduate school grants, art history articles, critical and artistic reputations with the intensity of mobsters and PIs. The book reminded me of Pynchon, though with far less characters; however, Willeford has a formalist determination to play the noir all the way to the end with a straight face without using silly songs as levity to break the tension. The tension persists throughout the book, and art criticism becomes a bleak business. Reasons why I think the book is currently OOP: 1. dated descriptions of technology: early Polaroid cameras, flashcubes, typewriters. (Note to self, if ever I write, stay away from extended descriptions of new technology).2. dated clothing: jumpsuits, bell bottoms. (Though I liked the 70s atmosphere). 3. One would have to have a grounding in noir in order to appreciate that Willeford used silly elements and yet stayed true to tone and form. So, actual noir gets printed before joke-noir or meta-satiric noir.


odd pulp novel with quite a theatrical take on modernsim. very seventies; there are denim jumpsuits.


This guy really knows how to write. A short, nasty, funny, noirish story, featuring a modern art critic and an old French painter so famous that no one has ever seen one of his paintings.


I'm not going to rate this... I can't say I "liked" it, because the lead character is so deplorable. But it was really well-written and unlike any other book I've read.

Oliver Wood

This a very clever little book about what happens when you become fixated on acquiring social position. Unlike in B. E. Ellis' American Psycho, this is not an attempt to imagine the inner world of a textbook psychiatric category. We are not in a world where all empathy and moralising is alien and absurd. Willeford creates the more believable scenario of someone who is drawn towards their goals with such focus and ferocity of speed, everything else falls out of view, including the autonomy of those immediately around him.While Burnt Orange Heresy is supposed to be Willeford's most critically acclaimed work, unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be in print any more. This is a shame since there are far less deserving works still being pressed into circulation. Willeford had a fine understanding of human motive and a pretty good ear for dialog too.


It's all the art of the bluff, all art is a bluff, the bluff is an art.

The Murderist

The Good: A crisp, well-constructed mystery. The art world setting is unique and provides atypical motivations for the characters.The Bad: People who are dismissive of fine art (particularly painting) will be bored to tears. The ending, while not bad, is a little unexpected.


one of my favorite books ever. a surprising discourse on how we look at art... and it's pulp fiction. is that amazing or what?


I am new to Charles Willeford and this my first of his books. I really liked this book. It was short and maybe almost more of a novella, but he packed lots of action and interest into it. Granted maybe his secondary characters could be more detailed, but I enjoyed them the way the were written. Sort of like "real life" people that you know, but realize later that you didn't know at all. :)This story of an art critic trying to get ahead via what is probably the least prolific painter ever is a fun read. The main character is rather like someone out of a Dashiell Hammett book. He's not the most likable guy ever, but he certainly is human.


Marvellous. Beautifully set in the chicanery of Florida art galleries, excellent story of a missing link in modern art. Crackles with tension, moving relentlessly forward with never a dud line.

Patrick McCoy

Charles Willeford was a man who knew a lot about many different subjects. His novels always give him an opportunity to show his intimate knowledge of the the South and Miami in particular. In addition, I learned a lot about the world of cock fighting from his novel The Cockfighter. It is clear from the novel that he wrote after that, Burnt Orange Heresy (1971) that he also knows a fair bit about art and art collecting. In fact, I learned that after the war he spent a few years in Peru and LA trying to establish himself as a painter. In this novel, which is also a mediation on art and the role of critics in art, up and coming art critic James Figueras is offered a proposition that can further his career by interviewing a fictional, reclusive French “Nihilist surrealist” named Jacques Debierueart, who is said to be the missing link between surrealism and abstract art. This proposition includes stealing a painting for an equally eccentric collector who is hosting the aging French artist in Florida. Figureas brings his buxom, midwestern school teacher girlfriend, Bernice Hollis in on the gambit to tragic result. I love the details like Figeras' clothes like his canary yellow jumpsuit and specific descriptions of meals eaten by the protagonist among other details. It is another fascinating and entertaining neo-noir novel from Willeford.

Dave Russell

An art collector hires an art critic to steal a painting from a reclusive artist. It sounds like an allegory about the role of art and commerce in society. It's actually a swift, brutal dissection of a man driven by pride and ambition. A masterpiece of a crime novel.


The best Willeford---better even than Miami Blues, which is fun and clever but familiar and makes me think way too hard about the utter furriness of Alec Baldwin's chest hair c. 1990. What I love about BOH is what I love about the best of literary pulp: it finds a way to erase the high culture/low culture divide. Suffice to say, the hero here is an art critic, ambitious, underhanded, entirely comfortable with his greedy-seediness. The story makes you think how much more fun and interesting Edmund Wilson, Kenneth Rexroth, and even Rex Reed would be if they were homicidal maniacs. I'm sure there's a book somewhere about the specific aesthetic theory Willeford employs throughout the narrative, but I'll leave it to others to explore that. Just rest assured if you know even a smitch about Marcel Duchamp and subsequent 1920s Dada/surrealism you'll get a chuckle out of some of the descriptions of the old master painter's work. Who knew so much could be made out of a nail hole, which comes to serve as a significant plot pivot? There are those who say the plot slags a bit in the middle, but when the critic breaks bad the pace more than picks up. Great noir climax set in the Everglades and starring a tire jack, and an interesting denouement that suggests critics do have a conscience and therefore are people too. One wishes Willeford were around to write the definitive GoodReads noir novel. It's time.


Been meaning to read this one for a while. It fits in my back pocket, so I thought it would be good to take on my trip to Monterey/Big Sur. Charles Willeford is continually fascinating as a writer. There is nothing flashy about this book at all, but it is fantastic. His characters can always rationalize any ridiculous or insane action. This book's protagonist is no exception to that rule. Perhaps the most interested thing of all to me in Willeford's late writings (say this one and the Hoke Moseley stuff) is his characters' insistence on wearing jumpsuits. I don't know, that's just weird and wonderful to me. Apparently, they are very handy to wear and comfortable. Definitely a great, short read from a master of American fiction.

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