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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, July 23, 2000

Warm Up to Mysteries in a Sun-Drenched Setting

If you can't make it to Florida this summer, why not go the library and have the Sunshine State come to you? Florida makes a great setting for murder mysteries.

First of all there is the sheer beauty of the natural landscape. It is a tropical paradise of palm trees, long-legged flamingoes, and expansive beaches.

Then there is the party atmosphere of the place. Even if you live there, you cannot help but feel that you are on vacation, for everyone else appears lost in Margaritaville.

Add to the mixture an influx of displaced mobsters, drug lords, smugglers, corrupt police, ruthless land speculators, beach bums, and bathing beauties and you have the ingredients for an exciting crime novel.

Rough Draft by James W. Hall (St. Martin's, 2000).

Florida mysteries are known for are their villains, who often manage to be as funny as they are scary. Hall has created a real monster here in Hal Bonner, a guy who makes Hannibal Lecter look almost like a good citizen.

The FBI is determined to catch Bonner and, without telling her, uses Hannah Keller, a mystery novelist and single mother, as bait. Frank Sheffield, a lazy, underachieving Miami-based FBI agent, comes to Hannah's aid. Frank ends up losing his job but finding some purpose for his life, and Hannah solves the great mystery of her life in a slam-bang surprise ending.

The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford (Carroll & Graf, 2000).

Willeford was the grand old man of Florida writers and if you haven't read his Hoke Moseley series, you should do yourself a favor and do so. Hoke was played by Fred Ward in the movie version of Miami Blues.

Willeford considered The Burnt Orange Heresy one of his best novels, but its subject matter might surprise you. It's about an ambitious art critic, Jacques Figueras, who gets mixed up with murder when he is asked by a collector to steal a painting by the great reclusive surrealist, Debierue. No such artist ever existed, of course, and Willeford has great fun spoofing art criticism in this noir classic. We have no trouble accepting the madness of the hero as almost normal behavior because of the madness of the times that we live in.

The Naked Detective by Laurence Shames (Villard, 2000).

Shames was a real discovery for me. He is one of the funniest writers that I've ever read but also one of the best. Like James W. Hall, he is able to conjure up the beauty of southern Florida in words.

Shames' detective is Pete Amsterdam, a failed writer whose only reason for being a private detective is so that he can use it as a tax dodge. He lives a comfortable life of playing tennis, drinking fine wines, and listening to good music, but his life is empty.

After taking his first case and seeing it to a successful conclusion, Pete rejoins the living, and in the process, meets a lissome yoga teacher named Maggie. Great fun and a fast read.

Ten Thousand Islands by Randy Wayne White (Putnam's, 2000).

White sets his Doc Ford mysteries on Sanibel Island. Doc is a marine biologist and an ex-intelligence operative who helps his friends when they get in trouble.

He is a rational, macho kind of guy but is assisted by a mystical ex-hippie and Rhodes scholar named Tomlinson. The contrast is sort of like that between Scully and Mulder on the X-Files.

This time out Doc and Tomlinson get involved in ancient Florida civilizations and obsessed collectors of artifacts. Doc, single, also gets to meet his soul mate, who unfortunately happens to be dead. You'll have to read the book to figure that out.

The action scenes are exciting and Doc is as tough as they come when a fight is involved.

If you like John D. Macdonald, don't miss this series. You may also find yourself wanting to vacation on Sanibel Island. Randy White makes it sound like paradise.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.