The golden sands, verdant hills, and crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea have called to authors since the age of piracy ended. Indeed, one of the first works set there, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, was about that most Caribbean of occupations. Following Stevenson’s path, the greats (Ernest Hemingway, Islands in the Stream), the near-greats (Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana; James Michener, Caribbean), the comic (Herman Wouk, Don’t Stop the Carnival; Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey), and the commercial (Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die and Dr. No) of the literary world have set their works on its shores.
Mystery writers have also had their protagonists living on or visiting the islands of the Southern Sea. One of the first to do this was also one of the greats of the genre—Agatha Christie in A Caribbean Mystery.
In this must-read for all fans of the cozy sub-genre, Christie sends her famed amateur sleuth, elderly spinster Miss Jane Marple, on vacation to a hotel on the fictional island of St. Honore. Bored by idleness and gossip, Miss Marple soon finds herself conversing with the long-winded Major Palgrave about her favorite topic—murder. Palgrave ends up dead himself, as do several others from the usual group of Christie characters, by the time-honored means of poison and stabbing. After casting the appropriate amount of suspicion among the hotel guests, Christie has Marple solve the crimes in her inimitable manner, and the reader leaves satisfied.
The tasty climate, lax policing, and revolving door of tourists and scoundrels seeking relaxation and anonymity in the islands have proved fertile ground for many others since Christie. Some have taken a more serious and hardboiled path, such as Timothy Williams in his The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe, in which Judge-Investigator Amie Marie Laveaud looks into a supposed suicide and tourist murder on the French island. In the same vein is Florida author Don Bruns’s island-hopping series (Jamaica Blue, Barbados Heat, South Beach Shakedown, St. Barts Breakdown, and Bahama Burnout), which features rock and roll journalist Mick Sever as its protagonist.
The image of fun, beauty, and ease projected by the tourist economy of many of the Caribbean’s islands also lends itself to mysteries that have a somewhat lighter character. For example, Bob Morris’s books about former NFL linebacker turned crime-solver Zack Chasteen (Edgar Award nominee Bahamarama, and Jamaica Me Dead, among others) feature a cast of quirky characters and a style which elevates humor to the same level as the mysteries Chasteen tries to solve.
While the bulk of Caribbean mysteries are set in the present day, at least one author, Brent Monahan, has dipped into the past in his soon-to-be-released The St. Lucia Island Club. This most recent edition of Monahan’s Island Club series revolves around the early efforts to develop tourism on edenic St. Lucia.
All these books contain the key elements which make up the classic mystery—a wily hero, a crime that is usually a murder, adversity, danger, and a satisfying resolution. The setting in the islands and sometimes at sea in the Caribbean adds a final enhancing element—an enticing location.
While we all love a city location where the mean streets are populated by hard-bitten types, who among us doesn’t need a vacation with some time in the sun on occasion? The Caribbean mystery is the mystery reader’s vacation: the needed change of pace, with a lead character still independent and clever but perhaps not so hardboiled; a setting with any unseemly aspects hidden behind a facade of sun and fun; secondary characters permitted to be more over-the-top by the loose, island lifestyle; exotic and dangerous romance; and violence that is anything but run-of-the-mill.
Anne Tyler said that books allow us to live more than one life in more than one place. Since we get to choose where we live those extra lives, why not pick a location as alluring as the Caribbean? With a side order of murder, of course.
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John Keyse-Walker practiced law for 30 years, representing business and individual clients, educational institutions, and government entities. He is an avid salt- and freshwater angler, a tennis player, kayaker, and an accomplished cook. He lives in Ohio with his wife. Sun, Sand, Murder is his first novel and the winner of the 2015 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.