To the Heart of the Caribbean*

Caribbean0002If you’re about ready for that winter getaway, or if you’d like to try somewhere tropical for your summer holiday, you may be thinking that the Caribbean would be the perfect choice. After all, there are plenty of beautiful islands, with lots of perfect beaches. Whether you like swimming, casinos, water sport or just simply enjoying nature, you’ll find lots to do. Oh, and there’s Caribbean music, too.

But there’s plenty of mystery, to say nothing of the danger from nature (e.g. hurricanes). And all sorts of people go there, with all sorts of backgrounds. So it’s little wonder that we see the Caribbean depicted in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery is set on the island of St. Honoré in the West Indies. Miss Marple is staying at the Golden Palm Hotel, courtesy of her nephew Raymond West, for a much-needed rest. One day she gets into a conversation with the long-winded Major Palgrave, who tells her about a man he knows of who lost two wives, both allegedly by suicide. But Major Palgrave suspects that they were murdered. He doesn’t get the opportunity to finish his story during that conversation, but Miss Marple remembers it. When Palgrave is found dead the next morning, Miss Marple is sure that someone at the resort doesn’t want the truth about those other deaths to come out. It turns out that she’s quite right, and that the resort hides some very dark secrets.

Fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee will know that McGee docks his boat The Busted Flush at the marina in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. In Darker Than Amber, he and his friend Meyer are fishing one night under a bridge when they save a young woman named Evangeline from being drowned after she is thrown from the bridge. As McGee and Meyer learn, Evangeline’s near death is related to a very dangerous fraud scheme going on aboard a cruise ship. So they take a Caribbean cruise to track down the people responsible. Even Caribbean cruises aren’t always lovely, restful experiences…

Leonardo Padura’s Havana quartet is set in modern Cuba. It features Lieutenant Mario Conde, who tries to do the best he can despite challenges such as low budgets, constant scrutiny and the fact that he’d rather write than be a cop. In the first novel, Máscaras/Havana Red, Conde and his team investigate when the body of a transvestite named Alexis Arayán is found in the Havana Woods. Since the victim was the son of a diplomat, this is going to be a delicate matter. It’s even more so for Arayán’s partner Alberto Marques, who is a playwright and director. Marques is already ‘on the fringe’ because of his sexual orientation, and it’s not going to help him or his career if he gets too deeply involved in this case. But he works with Conde to find out who called his partner and why.

We also get a look at Cuba, this time pre-revolutionary Cuba, in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra.’In that novel, which takes place in 1957, we meet fledgling journalist Joaquín Porrata. One day, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, a gangster known as The Great Executioner of Murder. Anastasia was killed in a New York barbershop, but Porrata has reason to think his murder is connected with Mob turf wars in Havana. It’s also connected with the killing of a hippopotamus that escaped from the local zoo.

There are also Bob Morris’ Zack Chasteen novels. Chasteen is a former player for the Miami Dolphins. He’s also a wrongly-convicted ex-convict. He gets reluctantly drawn into the PI business in Bahamarama, shortly after he’s been released from a Florida prison. He’s in the Bahamas on his way to visit his lover Barbara Pickering when he gets involved in a case of abduction and murder. Barbara’s ex-fiancé has been killed, and she’s been taken, with a huge ransom demanded. Chasteen works with the local police inspector Lynfield Pederson to find out where Barbara is, and confront those responsible. In this case, Chasteen past catches up with him…

And then there’s James L’Etoile’s Little River, which takes place on Jamaica. Andrea Carson is more than worried that her daughter Holly hasn’t returned as planned from her spring break at Montego Bay. When she gets no help from authorities, she decides to go there and look for Holly. With her is Grant Turner, whose daughter Jena also seems to have disappeared. The two girls went on the trip together, so their parents are hoping that they may both be found. When Carson and Turner arrive at Montego Bay, they start asking questions, which immediately draw the attention of local crime boss Jon-Pierre Baptiste. Among his other ‘enterprises’ is human trafficking, and it’s not long before his path crosses that of Carson and Turner. Now it’s a game of ‘cat and mouse’ as the two parents work desperately to try to find and save their daughters.

It’s no secret that the Caribbean is also a popular place to hide money. Offshore accounts can be effective places to keep funds from the hands of tax assessors and auditors, among other people. So it’s little wonder that Ava Lee ends up in the Caribbean in Ian Hamilton’s The Water Rat of Wanchai. Lee is a forensic accountant whose specialty is tracking down large amounts of money that people want to keep hidden. She works for Chow Tung, whom she calls Uncle. Uncle’s company is based in Hong Kong, and is the last resort for people who’ve had money stolen from them and are desperate to get it back. Such a person is Andrew Tam, whose company has been bilked out of five million dollars. He hires Uncle, and therefore Lee, to find the money. The trail takes Lee to Georgetown, Guyana, where she tracks down Jackson Seto, who likely knows where the money is. The only problem is that most of Guyana is under the control of crime boss Captain Robbins. Lee knows that she’ll never be able to catch Seto or get the money without Robbins’ sanction, so she forms an uneasy, unstrusting and costly alliance with him. There’s no guarantee that the money will ever be forthcoming, but Lee is determined to do her best. In this novel, the search for the money leads to a few places in the Caribbean.

See? And you thought the Caribbean was just an exciting holiday destination…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier.


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22 responses to “To the Heart of the Caribbean*

  1. At the risk of making your readers groan with yet more authors to add to the TBR list, I’ve also recently enjoyed Peggy Blair’s series set in Havana (the first one is a corker, entitled The Beggar’s Opera in the US and Midnight in Havana in the UK). Eden Baylee’s ‘Stranger at Sunset’ is set in Jamaica and is a very slick and entertaining twist on ‘And Then There Were None’.
    However, despite its potential for crime fiction, it is not as well represented as some other locations, is it?

    • No, it really isn’t, Marina Sofia. So, TBR or not, I’m very glad that you mentioned both Blair’s work and Baylee’s. I think it’s good to get a wide perspective on a place. The Baylee also gets my attention because of the homage to And Then There Were None.

  2. Keishon

    Some interesting book recs by some authors I don’t recognize. However, your post has reminded me that I need to read John D. MacDonald among others. You constantly blow me away with the depth and breadth of your knowledge of crime fiction, Margot.

  3. Yay! Any mention of the fabulous John D. MacDonald is music to these ears. Love Travis – his approach and all the rants about modern culture in Florida as he saw it – and I think he saw it straight. I don’t read many mysteries about the Caribbean as I like to enjoy myself when I go there and not think about possible crimes. There are parts of Maine just about ruined for me by Stephen King. One has to keep care if one is a sensitive soul – and one is.

    • You know, Jan, you do have a point about not conjuring up images of terrible deeds in places we love. It’s nice when some places are preserved (at least in one’s own mind) as nice, safe, even beautiful. And I couldn’t agree more about McGee and his creator. I like his character very, very much.

  4. Not a book, but there’s a whole British/French co production tv series called Death in Paradise which is set on a thinly-disguised Caribbean island and follows the whodunit formula. It’s rather sweet!

  5. It was nice seeing an author I “know” (virtually) listed here, Margot. The Caribbean is such a beautiful place it’s no wonder so many writers use it for their story’s locale. There’s also an inherent creepiness to some islands…if you look hard enough.

    • The Caribbean really is beautiful, Sue. And it is one of those places where a person can feel the danger just underneath the surface in some places. It does make for a terrific locale for a crime novel or series.

  6. Thanks for including Little River in such great company. Very much appreciated!

  7. I used to travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico, several times a year on business. I hadn’t thought of setting a mystery there, but now you’ve piqued my interest. Of course, I’ll have to go back soon to refresh my memory. 😀

  8. Dorothy Dunant (better known for historical fiction) wrote the ‘Dolly’ series of light thrillers (terrible name – the books each feature a young woman, and a portrait painter called Johnson, but Dolly is actually his boat) and in one of them, Dolly and the Bird of Paradise, they all end up in a Caribbean setting. They are very unusual books, but I absolutely loved them.

    • I’m afraid I have to agree with you, Moira, about the name of this series. Still, it does sound interesting, and I give an author credit who can pull off ‘unusual.’ And Dolly and the Bird of Paradise is a perfect fit with what I had in mine with this blog post. Thinks for the suggestion.

  9. Col

    A timely reminder I need to get back to the Travis books and enjoy some Padura! A couple of newbies to look up – as if I need any more books or new authors to follow, 🙂

  10. I have Havana Red and hope to read it soonish; all the other suggestions sound great too.

    • Havana Red is, in my opinion, a really interesting look at life in late ’80s/early ’90s Cuba, Tracy. I’ll be interested in what you think of it when you get the chance to read it.

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