Snowing? Sleeting? Has it warmed up to the the upper thirties? (Or, you know, not-quite-four degrees for you Celsius types.) Wearing a scarf? Wearing pants? You need to get in a Florida state of mind. (Seriously, we could use the tourist dollars.) But, if you don’t have the money to fly to Miami, you can still soak up the sunshine with some more Florida-based crime fiction.
Belly up to the bar in a Sherri Travis mystery and order yourself something with an umbrella and too much rum. So far, Phyllis Smallman has served up five novels and a novella, starting with Margarita Nights, described as a “cozy with grit.” Think a young Stella Hardesty/Stephanie Plum mixture washed up in the lower Keys.
Need your humor with less liquor and more pills off the bathroom floor? Tim Dorsey’s got some Florida Roadkill to share, along with 14 or 15 other books featuring serial killer and Floridaphile Serge Storms (depending on how you count the holiday-themed When Elves Attack...). If you like Carl Hiaasen, you’ll probably like Dorsey as they share a sense of manic absurdity that one may only be able to acquire working as a reporter for a Florida newspaper. Which, might explain the three criminally insane novels about inept criminals and low-lifes from former Miami Herald columnist, Dave Barry. His latest, Insane City, as well as Dorsey’s newest, The Riptide Ultra-Glide, came out in January.
Speaking of serial killers, surely you’ve heard of Jeff Lindsay’s humble little deviant, Dexter Morgan, who has hacked and sawed his way through six books (and I hear a TV show). Of course, long before Dexter, a 32-episode show about Michael Shayne hit the air in 1960. Pulpier than a Central Florida orange grove, the Mike Shayne books (many ghostwritten) show off a less-populated, decidedly un-glitzy side of the Magic City.
If there were ever a guy who’d prefer to stay on the un-glitzy side of life, it’s Thorn of the 12-book series by James W. Hall. It’s apparently a deadly proposition to be someone this guy cares about, but if you need to do some fishing, he’s your guy. His view of the Keys, in particular, is worth the price of admission (and cheaper than the hotel rates down there this time of year).
The downtrodden Hoke Moseley might be doing even worse than Thorn in the lottery of life, especially considering that his author, Charles Willeford, unfortunately died after only four books. They’re a little dated, but offer a realistic take on what Miami was like before Miami Vice offered a makeover it couldn’t refuse. In Hoke’s Dade County (yes, he’s before it became Miami-Dade), South Beach is a place where the downtrodden, the elderly, and the potentially criminal live in falling-down pastel hotels and apartments.
If you’re looking for the party side of South Beach, pick up Someone’s Watching, Sharon Potts’s second stand-alone thriller set in South Florida. Her latest, The Devil’s Madonna, is set partly in Miami Beach and partly in 1930s Berlin, giving it a historical twist.
Les Standiford is a guy who knows Florida history at least as well as Serge Storms. His nonfiction book about Flagler’s railroad (Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean) is excellent, but he also has a fun eight-book series about John Deal, a builder with a really bad habit of pissing off corrupt developers, political wannabes, and potential revolutionaries. The first book, Done Deal, is set in a pre-Marlins Miami and makes the town seem a little more baseball-crazy than our half-empty stands would suggest. Poisoned Pen Press re-released the series in the early 2000s.
If any of Deal’s exploits were to make the police blotter, Edna Buchanan’s Britt Montero would know about it. Britt made her debut with something of a bang—or rather a riot—in 1992’s Contents Under Pressure and appeared in her ninth outing (alongside Buchanan’s other series regulars, the members of the Cold Case Squad) a few years back. That doesn’t mean Buchanan hasn’t been busy. The Pulitzer-Prize winner knows crime and knows Miami. Her true crime books are probably better known than her fiction.
Lupe Solano strikes me as sort of the anti-Britt Montero. Nice cars, fancy clothes, big family, the star of Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s seven-book series runs a P.I. firm, but not the squalid cheater-chasing sort. Not quite cozy, but definitely not noir. Lupe might get her hands dirty, but she makes sure her manicurist cleans them up later.
Last, but hardly least, I offer you Elmore Leonard. Sure, other states claim him, but from Miami-based loan shark Chilli Palmer to Judge “Big” Bob, Leonard certainly captures some unforgettable Florida characters. (Speaking of Maximum Bob, I’ll round out our day-trip through the TV channels with a reminder that the conservative judge had his own show for all of seven episodes back in 1998.)
So, what are your favorite Sunshine State mysteries? What did I miss?
Neliza Drew is a tofu-eating teacher and erratic reader with a soft spot for crime fiction. She lives in the heat and humidity of southern Florida with three cats and her adorable hubby. She listens to way too much music, writes often, and spends too much time on Twitter (@nelizadrew).
Read all posts by Neliza Drew on Criminal Element.