Book Review: Miami Midnight by Alex Segura
By Scott AdlerbergAugust 12, 2019
Miami Midnight by Alex Segura is the fifth and final entry in the Miami-based Pete Fernandez series, where the recently retired private investigator is drawn back into detective work by his most personal case.
Pete Fernandez is back from the dead. As Miami Midnight opens, Pete is sitting in his therapist’s office telling her about his continuing recovery from the gunshot wounds he suffered at the end of the previous novel, Blackout. He was “clinically dead,” he says, and considers himself lucky to be alive. Though months of physical therapy have brought him back to the point where he can be a functioning human being again, Pete feels older than his actual years. The punishment he has absorbed since getting into detective work and the violence he has endured have taken their toll.
In some crime fiction, no matter what the series protagonist goes through from book to book, that main character starts virtually afresh, undaunted and vigorous with each new volume. Not so with Pete. Consistent with his methods for the entire series, Segura makes it clear from the outset that Pete is a person accruing scars, dealing with his ravages.
His left shin ached if the temperature dipped below seventy degrees, from where the mafia captain Vincent Salerno slammed his heel, before he left Pete for dead. Pete’s jaw clicked if he yawned or laughed too hard—residual damage from too many punches to the chin. The pale white skin of his chest looked like it had been splattered with dark purple paint, a cornucopia of bruises and cuts, healing at different intervals. That was the superficial stuff. Some nights, before sleep, Pete would feel the jolt—the first push from the first shot that entered his body. His back would tighten and his legs would spasm, as if bracing for another. Another shot that would never come.
Emotional damage lingers, too—he has seen friends and loved ones killed—and the therapist is providing help for that. Or is she?
In their conversation, she seems skeptical when he says he is content working at the bookstore he now owns. She pushes back against him when he says he is out of the detective game, retired for good this time. If that were true, why is he taking self-defense classes as if in preparation for something? He seems to be training himself for dangerous situations he expects to happen.
Pete denies this, claiming he does the training simply to feel stronger and less scared, better equipped to face anything that might come his way. Yet the therapist presses on, laying out how she thinks Pete might best approach his life:
“… Maybe the answer to the pain, the plan moving forward, isn’t to shelter yourself from the stuff that’s gone wrong, but to push forward with a clearer idea of what you want? Does that make sense? You’re acting out of fear—and that’s understandable, you almost died. But maybe the answer is to embrace who you are, to get better at that, rather than run from it, you know?”
Pete does not want to hear these words and cuts off his therapy session abruptly, but the remainder of Miami Midnight will, in fact, be a playing out of exactly what his therapist proposes. As events unfold that force Pete to abandon his brief retirement, he will surrender himself to an investigation that brings together the various threads of the different cases he has worked on throughout the series. And there is also the distant past to grapple with, a person he never knew but whose life and influence affected how Pete was raised.
That person is Pete’s mother, and as Miami Midnight progresses, Pete becomes obsessed with finding out how she died when he was very young. Understanding the past and trying to achieve a sense of stability in the present are what drive Pete in this book, and as always, there is no safe place anywhere for him.
The dangers that crop up because of his professional life directly imperil those closest to him personally. Pete has no choice but to assert himself to the full as a detective, and this Pete—unlike the Pete from earlier books—can be brutal. From the training he has done, he can fight. Even he can acknowledge to himself that he’s not unsuited to the unique pressures that accompany this line of work. From the beginning—Silent City, the first Pete Fernandez novel—Alex Segura has been writing a series showing us how an ordinary person evolves into a capable private eye, and Miami Midnight brings this journey to its completion.
The strengths infusing the series up to this point remain. Despite his improvement as a private eye, Pete continues to be a believably flawed human being. You feel the tension inside him as he continues his struggle to avoid the abyss of drinking. His friend and sometime investigating partner, Kathy, is back, and their relationship is as complicated as ever. There’s no doubt that Kathy has strong feelings for Pete, but can you blame her for sometimes being exasperated with him? As she says, he takes on the lost puppy dog role way too often. And would you really want to try building a future with someone who comes into harm’s way as frequently as Pete does?
Segura is superb in balancing the story’s complex mystery with the parts of the story involving Pete and Kathy’s private issues, and he excels in portraying the messiness of human relations. Two people with a powerful bond can still be awkward and indecisive with each other. Segura gets this just right.
As the title suggests, Miami is the book’s main locale, and Segura makes it a place both vibrant and sinister. It is a city filled with secrets and worlds within worlds. Cultures bump up against one another without truly meshing. Segura has learned well from the crime fiction masters how to make a series’ prime setting a character in and of itself, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, mystery readers connect Miami with the author’s Pete Fernandez as readily as they connect the city with Hoke Moseley or Britt Montero.
When the story moves to Havana, Cuba, for a stretch, Segura’s descriptions are less compelling, the city and country evoked with a disapproving shorthand. This Cuba, still ruled by a Castro, can only be a miserable place, it seems, but perhaps from Pete’s point of view, considering his family’s history, that’s an earned and genuine perception. There is an amusing cameo in the Havana section, I have to say, a moment of international solidarity between private eyes, but I won’t spoil the moment by revealing it.
Alex Segura has indicated that Miami Midnight will be his final Pete Fernandez book. At the very least, it’s the last in the series for a while. Through the five books, Segura has given us an ambitious saga that follows a well-developed arc; he has respected the traditions of private eye stories while bringing fresh wrinkles to them. I’ll miss Pete, but I’m glad that in Miami Midnight, he gets the conclusion he deserves.