First, I need to tell you that John D. MacDonald has left us a huge legacy of pulp, hardboiled fiction, and thrillers written in both novel and short story form. The scope of his work is nothing short of amazing. (You did know that Cape Fear was based on his novel The Executioners, right?)
But I think MacDonald is most widely remembered as the author who introduced Florida in all its vivid flashes of color to millions of readers when he created Travis McGee, a cool guy, who lived on an even cooler boat, The Busted Flush. The twenty-one Travis McGee novels ran the gamut of hues from The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964) to The Lonely Silver Rain (1985).
Florida is a fabulous location for any and all fiction, but especially for crime fiction. The state has a reputation for reflecting “summer time and the living is easy” twelve months a year. And while it attracts earnest citizens looking for a better life, it also attracts grifters, con artists, and ne’er-do-wells bent on creating their own brand of the high life by fleecing, threatening, or even killing the earnest citizens. And there was Travis McGee, ready and more than able, to help the earnest citizen and take out the bad guys.
Unfortunately, MacDonald died in 1986, so I’m not sure if he saw the first solo novel of Miami Herald columnist, Carl Hiaasen. A native Floridian, Hiaasen energized the world view of Florida as a wild and wacky place inhabited by folks who give new meaning to the word “character.” Hiaasen’s hilarious debut solo novel, Tourist Season, was hailed as one of the funniest views of Florida life ever written. His next book, Double Whammy has always been billed as the first (and possibly the only) novel about sex, murder, and corruption on the professional bass-fishing circuit. His imaginative view of Florida is not only available in fun novels for adults. Hiaasen also writes for kids, an audience that has responded with great interest and grand laughter to books with titles like Scat and Flush. The cover of his latest YA book, Chomp, has only the title and an open mouthed alligator on the cover. Sure to dazzle the kids, hoping that the gator will chomp a bad guy or two.
In the 1980s Randy Wayne White published nine novels under the name Randy Striker, including Key West Connection, Everglades Assault, and Assassin’s Shadow. In 1990 under his own name, White published the first of his nineteen Doc Ford novels, Sanibel Flatts. Doc Ford is a marine biologist who lives on a boat in Dinkin’s Bay on Sanibel Island. Ford’s adventures often take him to South America, but he is always anchored in Florida.
Recently, White introduced a new protagonist, Hannah Smith, in the novel, Gone. Hannah makes her living as a fishing guide but has a reputation as a no-nonsense person who can correct any problems her friends and customers might have. When a girl goes missing, Hannah is asked to find her, leading to an intricate story wrapped in White’s trademark: a complex plot and a brilliant sense of place.
For a lighter touch of Florida humor filled with family chaos and a dead body or two, I can always rely on Deborah Sharp’s Mace Bauer mysteries. My favorite of the series, Mama Rides Shotgun, weaves some nice Florida history while a murder occurs and is eventually solved. Mace, the middle daughter and her oft-married Mama follow the old Florida Cracker Trail on horseback across the state. (Did you know the term cracker comes from the sound of the whips the cowboys used on cattle drives? Did you even know that Florida was once a big cattle state?) Most impressive of all, Deborah Sharp actually mounted a horse and road the trail herself as research for the book. And it’s a long trail.
Florida lends itself to eccentric characters and quirky landscape and these authors repeatedly present us with the best the state has to offer in crime writing. If you haven’t read a mystery set in Florida for a while, the time is now.
Terrie Farley Moran’s recent collection of short stories, THE AWARENESS and other deadly tales, is currently available in e-format for the Nook and the Kindle. Terrie blogs at Women of Mystery, and her short story “Fontaine House,” set in—where else?—south Florida, can be found in the August 2012 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Read all posts by Terrie Farley Moran for Criminal Element.