Each year since I have been writing this blog, I have tried to do a state by state list of mystery fiction.
Summer, after all, is the time of the family road trip, the time when that wide stretch of road reaches beyond our imagination, the time when the family in the back seat—whether they be kids or adults—reaches a pitch when you wish you actually in a mystery story.
So here is an irregular look at mystery fiction that showcases the various states. I will try to do at least one more in the next few weeks, but don't hold me to it.
I am starting with Florida. Mainly because since I live here, it is the easiest for me to write about.
Florida in the summer?
People do brave the humidity and the threat of hurricanes to visit Florida during the summer. There are the various aspects of Disney World, Sea World, Busch Gardens, the Everglades and the many cruise ships leaving from Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Tampa and Cape Canaveral.
Florida has a rich history of mystery fiction and here are some authors that will show you the intricacies of the Sunshine State. I have not listed every author, so please let us know your favorites.
Here are some novels to get you going, whether you listen to them as an audio book or read them. (Many of the descriptions come from reviews I have written.)
Carl Hiaasen: This satirist wields a heavy comic hand as he gives a Swiftian look at the changes in the state. No matter how over the top Hiassen’s storytelling scales, he grounds it in reality, the Florida type of reality where scams and schemes co-exist on every corner. Bad Monkey, Hiaasen’s latest, centers on Andrew Yancy, a former Miami cop and soon to be former Monroe County sheriff’s deputy, who can’t turn off those cop instincts when he thinks there’s something very fishy about a man’s arm that turns up on the end of a tourist’s fishing line. Bad Monkey is Hiaasen’s 13th novel. Bad Monkey starts in the Keys, travels to Miami and ends up in the Caribbean.
Tim Dorsey: Tim Dorsey’s novels will never be accused of offering sophisticated humor as does Hiaasen. Nor will Dorsey’s novels will never be mistaken for works of art. He has taken what is essentially a gimmick—a serial killer so enamored with Florida that he attacks those who don’t share his passion, or are just rude—and lathered it with broad, slapstick humor and made it work. Series “hero” Serge A. Storms never changes, never grows, but has amassed a solid following that continue with The Riptide Ultra-Glide, the 16th in the Tampa author’s series. Dorsey’s novels feature all of Florida.
Elaine Viets: Viets’ Helen Hawthorne novels cover the Fort Lauderdale area as Helen takes a series of low-paying jobs that have kept her off the grid. Viets uses real restaurants, hotels and stores to give her novels a dose of reality. In Board Stiff, her 12th outing with Helen, Viets delivers a unique look at South Florida’s tourism industry – not from the viewpoint of the big hotels or upscale restaurants but from the small beach-front companies that are the lifeblood of tourism. Although she uses a fictional town in Board Stiff, Viets perfectly captures the attitude and flavor of a Florida beach, from the tackier than ever T-shirt shops to the causal cafes.
Randy Wayne White: White owns the Gulf coast with his Doc Ford novels set at Dinkn’s Bay in Sanibel Island. In Night Moves, White takes one of Florida’s most iconic historical mysteries – the 1945 disappearance of Flight 19 that sparked rumors of the Bermuda Triangle – and turns it into a tailor-made story for his own icon, “Doc” Ford in the 20th novel in this series. Although he’s a reluctant sleuth at first, Flight 19 soon becomes the kind of mystery that allows Ford to use all aspects of his background as a marine biologist, a committed ecologist and, oh yeah, his “shadow” role as a government agent.
James W. Hall: The prolific Hall is the heir apparent to John D. MacDonald with his Thorn novels set in the Keys. One of my favorite Hall novels is Magic City, which came out in 2007. In Magic City, Hall uses a “random snapshot taken at a cosmically inappropriate split second” illustrating a historical event. This “unsparing” black and white photograph puts in focus the time when Miami was on the cusp of changing, when Florida was emerging and when race relations in America were evolving. By the end of the potent Magic City, extended families, new families and old families will have disintegrated because of this photograph. The photograph that sets off the action in Magic City was taken during the 1964 Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston heavyweight-championship fight in Miami. 1964 was a heady time for Miami when the fight, visits from the Beatles, famous actors and politicians made the city “the center of the universe.” But it’s not the shot of Clay’s winning punch that causes an uproar, but rather who’s in the audience.
John D. MacDonald: No list of Florida mysteries would be complete without at least a mention of MacDonald and Travis McGee, self-described beach bum and salvage expert. Random House is republishing all 70 of John D. MacDonald’s novels both in trade paperback and ebook. Much has changed in the genre since the Harvard educated MacDonald introduced Travis McGee in 1964’s The Deep Blue Goodbye. But The Deep Blue Goodbye launched themes that reverberate today, through the works of not just Florida writers but all mystery writers. Travis McGee cared very much about the environment, overdevelopment and the political infrastructure that punished the poor and made the wealthy richer.
Lawrence Shames: Although Shames is no longer writing mysteries, his comic novels brought retired mafia to the Key West, complete with old grudges and little dogs.
Barbara Parker: The late Barbara Parker’s novels in her “Suspicion” series were about Miami lawyers Gail Connor and Anthony Quintana. The series illustrated the changing landscape of South Florida, contrasting long-time Miami residents with the influence of Cuban-Americans. At least two of Parker’s novels landed on the New York Times Best-Sellers List.
Jonathon King: King’s Max Freeman novels traveled deep into the Everglades to give “the River of Grass” a new view.
Charles Willeford: Willeford wrote in 1984 about a Miami Beach that was clearly changing, reflected in his unusual protagonist. Hoke Moseley was a detective with badly fitted dentures who lived in a run-down Art Deco hotel on the verge of being condemned to make way for the development that would become South Beach. Moseley wasn’t comfortable with the changes in Miami or with his new savvy partner, a Cuban-American woman. But mostly Moseley wasn't comfortable with himself.
Other Florida authors to check out include Edna Buchanan, Paul Levine, Christine Kling, James O. Born, Tom Corcoran, James Grippando, Mary Anna Evans, Stuart Kaminsky, Stuart Woods, Glynn Marsh Alam, Nancy J. Cohen, and Jeff Lindsay.