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Courier Article by Lucy Clem
Sunday, August 30, 2005

Miami: Where Crime Writing Never Takes a Vacation

When crime-reporter-turned-author Edna Buchanan's Miami, It's Murder (Hyperion, 1994) was featured on a prominent billboard in the city, the Chamber of Commerce howled. They'd prefer to promote South Florida's beautiful beaches and exciting nightlife. Protests notwithstanding, there must be some reason that a significant number of crime and mystery writers set their stories in that locale. Maybe it's the originality of Florida criminals, or the variety. Maybe it's just the weather. At any rate, these are some of my favorite Florida crime writers, distinguished by their ability to create eccentric, if not wacko, characters. Disclaimer: if you feel badly about laughing at lawbreakers, avoid these authors. They're funny! Incidentally, these titles are all available from the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library as downloadable audiobooks.

Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen (Warner, 1987).

Hiaasen is an award-winning reporter for the Miami Herald, and his novels reflect his outrage at the area's social ills. His heroes are frequently eco-terrorists who battle to preserve the dwindling undeveloped land, and his bad guys are usually money-grubbing fat cats who meet their ends in humorously appropriate ways. Here, the murders of the president of the Miami Chamber of Commerce, a visiting Shriner (all they found was his fez), and a Canadian tourist point to a killer whose real target is Florida's tourism industry. Enter Las Noches de Diciembre, a ragtag group of wannabe Cuban revolutionaries whose bombs never blow up the right target, led by a disgruntled Miami newspaper columnist. Add recurring Hiaasen character Skink, an honest Florida governor who disappeared while still in office and now lives off roadkill in the Everglades, and throw in a finale involving kidnap and the Orange Bowl princess. The result is a darkly hilarious romp.

Shark River by Randy Wayne White (Putnam, 2001).

White is a fishing guide who works in the Fort Myers/Sanibel area, and his Doc Ford mysteries incorporate details that will delight anyone who's vacationed there. His characters, while not as outrageously quirky as Hiaasen's, are memorable. Doc, formerly employed in a covert wing of the CIA, makes a living collecting biological specimens for schools and laboratories. He and his friend Tomlinson, an unrepentant hippie who moonlights as an ordained Buddhist priest, often find themselves embroiled in adventures involving guns, harrowing midnight boat rides, and assorted bad guys. This one starts out with a foiled kidnapping and an encounter with a statuesque Bahamian beauty who claims Doc is her brother. In no time, some very bad Colombians are trying to kill him. Meanwhile, he takes a job as bodyguard to the spoiled and beautiful daughter of a wealthy industrialist, only to discover that Dad knows things about his past that could lead to trouble of a different kind. The strands of the story weave together, tension building, to end with a satisfying shootout that leaves room for the next installment.

Cadillac Beach by Tim Dorsey (William Morrow, 2004).

Another journalist, Dorsey was a reporter and editor for the Tampa Tribune before becoming a full-time novelist. His books have little of the environmental angle that marks Hiaasen's and White's work, but his screwball characters are clearly spawned by the same Florida atmosphere. The hero (antihero?) of his series is Serge A. Storms, one-man crime spree. He's a little like White's Tomlinson character, but criminally insane. In this episode, he's attempting to find some diamonds that apparently caused his grandfather's disappearance. The story, set in Miami, moves back and forth from 1964 to the present and features such memorable real-life characters as Cassius Clay, Meyer Lansky, and the guy who tried to kill Castro with an exploding cigar . . . Serge manages to run afoul of both the Feds and the mob as he perpetrates his trademark scams. Like Dorsey's other books, this is slapstick comedy, full of hilarious psychological observations and featuring over-the-top heroes and villains.

If you're one of those people who likes to read literary series in order, be warned—none of these titles is the first. For a chronological list of any of these authors' work, just call your favorite librarian.

Lucy Young Clem is the Tech Center Supervisor at Central Library, where she sandwiches reading book reviews between computer training sessions.