Something in the Water
I was supposed to be at the beach.
With nothing pressing to occupy my time this month, I thought I would trundle on down to sunny Florida and take a look around. I’ve wandered the concrete canyons of New York, ascended the steep hills of San Francisco and even spent a little time racing through the sun-kissed back alleys of Los Angeles, but I’ve never actually passed into Florida, despite a lingering interest in Miami’s atmospheric climes and a long-suffering exposure to moldy Jimmy Buffet albums.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Naturally, as soon as I decided to take a swing through the Sunshine State, things went all to hell, as per usual. A tropical storm that should have worn itself out over Cuba somehow grew a name and Ernesto made tracks for Key West, racing me to its rickety bars.
Me and the hurricane: rolling and tumbling, a little weaker than we first thought, and neither of us knows where we’re going to land.
All this started when a Hollywood player called up out of the blue asking if I knew anything about Florida murder mysteries. In looking into it, I found that the more I dig, the deeper the swamp gets. It’s obviously a pulse-pounding place for mystery writers and readers alike.
At first, I thought it must be something in the water. Half a century of pollution, evolution and cargo-dumping had to have taken its toll on the water supply, contaminating the local hive-mind with some psychoactive mix of poisons and pharmaceuticals, resulting in a bunch of twitchy, half-mad characters that wind up spending the rest of their short-lived days inspiring minor characters in Elmore Leonard novels.
After delving into the sub-genre of sunny Florida’s mysteries, crime novels and noir thrillers, I’m wondering if it’s the people rather than the place. After all, if you took thousands of drug lords, Cuban exiles, greedy developers, half-baked low-lifes, gullible retirees and others of less-than-stellar repute and stuck them in rural Missouri or someplace equally drab, you’d likely find a little drama, too. John D. MacDonald said the problem was that people in Florida had always just arrived from somewhere else, so they never knew what it was like before, which seems a valid argument even today. Add this cast of unlikely characters to a sun-drenched paradise stocked with burial grounds, alligators and cigarette boats, and bad weirdness must erupt on its own, even without these writers artificially injecting some arcane plot into the mix.
Where to start? The two big men of Florida crime fiction are MacDonald and Elmore Leonard. I’ve written extensively about MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels before and they’re as fine a place to start as any as the melancholy detective laments the passing of Florida’s glory to condo developers and other modern-day criminals.
Although Elmore Leonard has traditionally stuck to his hometown of Detroit, it’s worth checking out his excursions to Florida, which represent some of the great man’s best work. The two most descriptive are the Raylan Givens books, detailing the misadventures of a Federal Marshall in Pronto and Riding the Rap. There’s also Rum Punch (translated into a postmodern blaxploitation film as Jackie Brown), which follows a sting operation in Miami; Leonard’s tribute to true love between a Fed and a crook in Out of Sight, which details the delicate, touchy affair between Marshall Karen Sisco and bank robber Jack Foley; and Gold Coast, a classic, strange clash between a well-heeled Florida widow and an adroit ex-con out to get either her or her money -- as with the best of Leonard’s stories, you’re never quite sure who the good guy is in the first place.
Of course, Florida’s mystery reputation wouldn’t be what it is without Carl Hiaasen, either. While I’ve always found his books a little more off the wall than my tastes generally run, they’re a godsend for traveling. You don’t have to take my word for it -- trust me, you’ll be able to find thousands of copies of Striptease, Skinny Dip, or any of his other whacked-out character studies in any airport worldwide. If you’ve already worked your way through the Hiaasen catalogue, don’t fret. His new novel, Nature Girl, promising a battle of wills between the bipolar Honey Santana and a hustling telemarketer named Boyd Shreave, is due in November. With a print of over half a million copies, you’ll be able to find this one pretty easily, too.
The guy who always seems to be to do a more readable pass at Hiassen’s world is Lawrence Shames, who writes a fish-out-of-water caper as well as anybody in the business. My own favorite is his bumbling, witty comic novel The Naked Detective. It's about a guy named Pete Amsterdam, a sloppy everyman, who accidentally gets rich and retires to the Keys. He's had his accountant set him up as a private detective as a tax dodge, with no intention of ever taking on any clients. It’s a great set-up and even though the actual crimes involved are clumsily introduced, it’s a fine introduction to Shames’ stack of Key West-based mysteries, which include Florida Straits, Welcome to Paradise, and Mangrove Squeeze, among others.
Also popular is the distinctively peculiar Tim Dorsey, whose many novels usually feature the equally bizarre Serge A. Storms, the menacing manic depressive who drives the plots of books like Torpedo Juice and Florida Roadkill. Added to Storms’s hilarious methods of murder (like filling a target’s scuba gear with nitrous oxide and then watching him suffocate to the strains of “Comfortably Numb”) is the fact that the series is a trip to read. It’s worth a trip to Dorsey’s website (“Why dead people show up in later books”) to learn that the books are written -- but not published -- in chronological order.
On the darker side of things, there’s the irrepressible Randy Wayne White, whose series of 13 novels about a retired spook turned marine biologist Doc Ford, is grim but gripping. He’s compared from time to time to MacDonald but I found his latest, Dark Light, with its focus on a lost cargo of Nazi artifacts, to be less menacing than the middle books in the series -- a less volatile mix of James Lee Burke’s simmering peril with a plot cribbed from a Clive Cussler novel. But I’ll admit that the mix of Ford’s violent past, solid scientific research and picturesque settings makes for an attractive proxy in the absence of McGee’s adventures.
I’m running out of time just now; the winds are starting to pick up and it will start raining soon, but I’ll leave by pointing out a few other fine characters among the locals.
Don’t miss Edna Buchanan, who makes good use of her years as a crime reporter in Miami in her Britt Montero mysteries and several very good memoirs of her Pulitzer-winning career, including the classic The Corpse Had a Familiar Face. For more hard-boiled work, there’s James W. Hall, whose novels usually feature a cranky, gun-toting righter of wrongs in the vein of Andrew Vachss’ Burke – see Gone Wild, Blackwater Sound or Buzz Cut for solid examples. Another familiar face, and one of the more influential writers among the post-modern blogosphere is James O. Born, who is creating great books based largely on his own law enforcement experience. They’re serious stuff, based more in the Tom Clancy mold than the drug-addled trailer parks of Hiaasen or Leonard, but his self-referencing hero Bill Tasker lends a lot of credibility and believability to Born’s burgeoning series. Finally, I’d be remiss to mention Florida crime without touching on the elegant, gifted, and unfortunately late writer Charles Willeford, whose novels about jumpy Miami homicide detective Hoke Mosley include the classic Miami Blues.
That stack should keep you busy until the water recedes. See you at the bar.
“There’s sailboats, and conch shells, and palm trees galore…
But Jimmy Buffett doesn’t live in Key West anymore.”
David Allen Coe