Ennis Willie influenced crime genre

Writer left footprints in 'Sand'

Who is Ennis Willie?

 

Max Allan Collins, the author of Road to Perdition , said the graphic novel on which the Academy Award-winning film was based had "Ennis Willie's fingerprints all over it."

But Willie, who wrote 21 hardboiled crime novels between 1961 and 1965, seemed to vanish after that, leading fans to speculate widely about who he really was.

Mystery writer Stephen Mertz once claimed Ennis Willie was a pseudonym used by Mickey Spillane, but the common theory was that Willie was a black man, with a poet named Willie Ennis as the main suspect.

The uncommon last name Willie, however, is well-known in Louisville, Ga., where the family had demonstrated a flair for entertaining since their arrival from Florida in the 1870s, according to Jefferson County historian Leroy Lewis.

Ennis Willie hadn't been hiding out in his hometown, though. With a singularity of purpose like that of his character Sand, an ex-gangster who always got the better of his adversaries, usually with a bullet, Willie turned his back on writing in 1965 to open a printing business in Atlanta.

The creator of Sand would remain a mystery for nearly 40 years, until Willie e-mailed mystery writer Ed Gorman that, yes, he was alive, and responsible for the Ennis Willie books.

It had all gotten started in Louisville, 40 miles south of Augusta, where young Ennis Willie said he'd devoured the Westerns and everything in the local libraries, then turned to Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Spillane.

Sand and Willie's other characters were "very macho," Willie said, while his women were cushiony, platinum and sometimes deceitful babes.

Eve Perdue, a well-known Augusta lounge singer in the 1960s and 1970s, is Ennis Willie's sister. She recalled her baby brother asking if he should pursue a music career or continue writing.

After he gave a performance, Perdue said she advised him to write.

"Bless his heart, I thought, 'What am I going to say?' " Perdue said.

"Elvis Presley was all the rage then."

Willie stuck with the poetry, and when he graduated from Louisville Academy, moved in with his sister in Martinez.

While living there and enrolled at Bolen's Business University, on Eighth Street in Augusta, Willie sold his first short story to Hi-Life Magazine and finished his first book, The Work of the Devil , published by Merit in 1961.

He was also working part-time for an Augusta finance company, "reminding" debtors when they were behind on payments.

Once, he went with two deputies to collect a dresser that a woman had used as collateral for a loan, and she pulled out a gun.

"That thing was right in my face," Willie said. "She said to me, and I'll always remember, 'If you didn't have those deputies with you, I'd shoot your head off.' "

It's an experience Willie associates with his years in Augusta, but one uncommon for the man his sister said is "as gentle as a lamb."

As he continued to write and graduated Bolen's, Willie took a job with the railroad and moved to Columbus, Ga., where he met his bride.

"She was perfect for me. She was nice. She was beautiful. And she could type," he said.

And she could spell, helping her husband prepare the manuscripts he'd submit to Merit to be published verbatim, Willie said.

In Columbus, Willie wrote his one novel not published by Merit, Vice Town , the setting for which was based loosely on nearby Phenix City, Ala., "a town where the vice and political corruption had gotten so bad a few years earlier that the state of Alabama declared martial law to shut it down," he said.

In a one-bedroom apartment, Willie "continued to write from 4 a.m. till time to leave for work," he said.

The young couple would move to Atlanta, where they soon were expecting their first child.

The endless coffee and cigarettes and long hours that accompanied his writing made for a tough life, Willie said, but one that he chose.

"Everything I do is a hard lifestyle. Not from the standpoint of putting food on the table, just from the standpoint (of) doing too much of it. It's what I do. It's my nature."

By then, however, his novels and short stories had become so popular that the publisher doubled his advance.

Willie said that he never tells how much that was but that it was twice what his railroad job paid.

Despite their covers, sporting nearly nude models, and titles such as And Some Were Evil and Luscious, Teasing Body , the books contain little graphic sex and no profanity.

The books, of the type called "sleaze paperbacks," did not shock his hometown fans, who rushed to buy the titles off wire racks at the grocery or drugstore, he said.

"Where you found the National Enquirer , you also found the National Insider and the National Tattler , and both of these tabloid newspapers were published by my publisher and carried a half-page ad featuring my novels for nearly a decade," Willie said.

A grandmother of one of his Louisville classmates bought them all and "acknowledged to one and all that she was my biggest fan," he said. "I am, to this date, her biggest fan."

But in 1965, with 21 successful novels and several short stories, Willie stopped.

"I just sort of burned out," he said. "I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and then I just burned out."

In part at the urging of his wife, Gailya, Willie stopped writing and decided to focus on something else, starting a printing company in his home.

"I wanted to be rich and famous, and then I got to be rich and famous," he said. "Then I decided I just wanted to be rich."

So he walked away, to the disdain of publishers and continued misunderstanding of his crime-writing peers.

"I'm very single-minded. I can only concentrate on one thing at the time."

With that focus, Wilcor Graphics "grew and grew and grew," he said.

Today, Willie's two children, Stant and Fable, run the Norcross, Ga., business, but the 71-year-old still serves as chief executive officer.

He's been amused and impressed over the years with the response of his readers.

"Apparently, I have a lot of fans, a lot of people who went on to become writers," he said.

He's had a new novel in his head for years but is in no hurry to write it.

"I don't rule it out, but my fingers are not itching to go at it," Willie said.

Fans of Willie and his character Sand, however, are in luck. A new volume of Sand Shockers was published by Ramble House about a month ago.

"For us it's selling pretty well," said Ramble House founder Fender Tucker.

Citing the influence of Willie, Mertz and Lynn Myers, a collector and researcher for Collins, edited the book, called Sand's Game , and it includes an introduction by Collins.

Sand said, "You lose, Marilyn."

But the roar covered up the sound of his voice.

-- Excerpt from Death in a Dead Place, by Ennis Willie

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