The Burnt Orange Heresy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

ISBN: 0679732527
ISBN 13: 9780679732525
By: Charles Willeford

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Reader's Thoughts

dead letter office

i always kind of worry about my art dealer friend's safety after reading this book.


time for a detective interlude


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.


This is a decent, quick mystery. An overzealous art critic will stop at nothing to further his career. When given an opportunity to interview a famous French artist, he discovers that the artist has never painted anything before. So the critic uses his insight into the conversation to create a phoney painting, as he thinks the French artist would have painted, had he the courage to do so. He then goes to great lengths to cover up any evidence of wrongdoing, creating fairly exciting end chapters. This was OK, but I'm glad it was short. Some of the conversations seemed a little fabricated and one part even reminded me of the dreaded Celestine Prophecy, the way the protagonist reacted to his girlfriend's question. The plot was decent, though.

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.

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.


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


The book starts out a little slow. A lot of the first act is the narrator/protagonist, an art critic trying to break into the big time, musing on the nature of art criticism and the role it plays as a service, not just to consumers and patrons of art, but the artists themselves. It’s not as boring as it sounds. He takes a pretty dense piece of subject matter and breaks it down into pretty simple lay terms, even using sports analogies. I wasn’t entirely sure if he was satirizing critics or dispatching his own critical manifesto through the narrator. The latter is probably unlikely given that the narrator believes artist and critic should maintain defined roles: critics shouldn’t make art, and artists shouldn’t write criticism. Of course, in real life, in addition to being a writer, soldier, horse trainer, and amateur boxer, Willeford was also a painter and an art critic—hardly a man who believed in singular obsession. Hang in there. The first act sets up a pretty riveting second and third act, and what may have seemed long-winded and pretentious is actually very clever foreshadowing. After putting this book down, I realized it was a very lean, concise thriller. It was also smart and informative. Without giving too much away, the narrator finds himself compromising each of his previously stated professional ethics one by one until finally he passes a point of no return. Like a lot of Willeford’s novels, there’s a female accessory to the protagonist, a somewhat ditzy but attractive girlfriend. But in the third act, she proves rather perceptive, doing a surprisingly good job of putting the facts together. The narrator’s underestimations of her intelligence drive the plot to its climax, which is dark, brutal, and sparingly well-written in a compelling way, a Charles Willeford trademark.

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.


Finally, a disappointment from the man who wrote the spiny 'hook-up' and the engaging 'cockfighter'. The protagonist is boring and his remarks about art seem uninformed; this is strange given that the author was a painter himself. Nevertheless, despite the mythology that is setup around the French Master, it's never quite convincing. To really make him mythic would require more pages, but that's not Willeford's style. I wonder whether he was just looking for a paycheque here - his heart doesn't seem into it. Sad.


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.


A nasty, little gem. As much a commentary on criticism and art as a character study and dark thriller.A lot of times when a writer attempts to delve into an exotic arena (in this case, the art world), even with research, the setting can come off more as how the writer wants the art world to be or how he/she thinks it is (This is best illustrated by the "punk rock" episode of "T.J. Hooker". The 50 year-old writer had obviously read an article in time on "punkers" and used that as the entire basis for his representation, failing miserably). So when you read a book where the writer is obviously someone writing within an arena they know, the detail and depth glows. Who knew that Willeford had a thesis on the nature of art criticism in him?This is also the best written book, purely in terms of language, that I have read by Willeford. Spare, but descriptive. Poetic, yet stern.Deserves to be consideredthe classic that it is.


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


Having previously read Willeford books of the 50's and 80's, and being intrigued by his style(s) of both periods I notice that this book published in '71 throws me a stylistic curveball. It's still Willeford of course, but I have a feeling he's being a little more ironic in this one. The beginning of the book is basically a monologue outlining our protagonist J. Figueras', an art critic, mind and aims. In talking about art criticism Willeford's tone is quite acidic and walks a fine line between masturbatory brains and say opinionated sarcasm. He's writing is maybe more verbose, in the manner of a critic, but at the same time transparent, he could be jiving and writing tonuge in cheek here. The story goes something like this: This ambitious man with high ideals and belief in Art falls for a greedy rich guy's request for him to steal a painting of the most famous survivor of "Modern art" who moneybags has arranged to move from France to Florida somehow after his house burnt it gets clear that a mind game played by the artist on the art critic, and the critic on the collector, and media, takes place. He has no qualms about theft, nor lying about true art, in order to enhance his position as a famous, esteemed critic, discovering that others in the field must have done the same before him. As usual, there is a woman... She gets in the way of his clarity after a while and she gets sacrificed. After some inner turmoil about murder, he caves in and gives himself up to the police for justice on that account.


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.

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