I’m Back to Livin’ Floridays*

FloridaAh, Florida – the ‘Sunshine State.’ Home of beautiful beaches, fresh citrus, delicious food, great nightlife, and Disney World. Florida attracts millions of tourists from all over the world, and with good reason. You’d think it would be an idyllic spot, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong.

There’s certainly real-life crime in Florida, and there’s plenty of fictional crime, too. From Pensacola to Key West, there are all sorts of fictional dirty doings in this southeasternmost state of the US.

One of the best-known series set in Florida is, of course, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. Fans of this series will know that McGee lives on a boat he’s named The Busted Flush. He won the boat in a card game (hence the name), and is content to live there. The boat is moored at Lauderdale, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but McGee does travel at times. He refers to himself as a ‘salvage consultant,’ by which he means that he helps his clients recover property that’s been taken from them. His fee is steep: half of the value of the property. But his clients know that they have few other options, and would rather have half than nothing. In The Lonely Silver Rain, for instance, McGee is hired to find a wealthy friend’s yacht. He tracks it down, but when he goes aboard, he makes the gruesome discovery of several bodies. That discovery puts him right in the middle of South Florida’s ‘cocaine wars’ (the book was written in 1985). And it serves as a reminder of Florida’s history as a hub for drug smuggling and trafficking.

Slightly further south, Miami is the home of Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon/Victoria Lord series. Victoria Lord is a former prosecuting attorney from a privileged background. She prefers to do things ‘by the book.’ In Solomon vs Lord, the first of this series, Lord is fired from the job she’s had at the Florida state’s attorney’s office. She switches sides, as the saying goes, when defending counsel Steve Solomon hires her. In many ways, he’s her opposite. Where Lord prefers to play by the rules, Solomon’s view is, ‘when the law doesn’t work, work the law.’ Her law degree is from Yale; his is (barely) from the Key West School of Law. In this first novel, the two clash when they defend Katrinia Barksdale against the charge of murder. She’s been accused of killing her wealthy husband Charles, so there’s all sorts of money, sex and other juicy gossip to keep the local media in a frenzy.

Dave Barry’s Big Trouble also takes place in Miami. That novel features Arthur Herk, vice-president for a very corrupt local corporation, his wife, Anna, and daughter Jenny. When the boy next door, Matt Arnold, sneaks into the Herk home one night, his only goal is to use a squirt gun and best Jenny in an ongoing game of ‘killer.’ But Anna and Jenny think at first that he’s a real burglar and try to attack him. As if that’s not enough, Arthur tries to get involved, and ends up narrowly avoiding being killed by two hit men who’ve also snuck onto the property. Before they know it, the Herks, the Arnolds, the police, and a vagabond who lives in a tree on the Herk property are all caught in the crossfire, as the saying goes, and intertwined with an illegal arms trafficking scheme.

As you can see, South Florida isn’t exactly a safe place. What about Central Florida and the Everglades? Not so fast. Carl Hiaasen’s work shows just how unsafe it can be there. In Lucky You, for instance, features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do a story on JoLayne Lucks, who’s just won $US114 million. She wants to use the money to buy and preserve a piece of land in Florida. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals the ticket, with the idea of using the money to fund a militia. Before Krone knows it, he’s drawn into a complicated plan to get the ticket back. But neither he nor JoLayne has counted on the group of ruthless land developers who will do anything to keep the land free for development. Hiaasen’s done other novels, too, that feature the Florida landscape, and the ongoing debate over ecology and land preservation vs economic considerations and the tourist trade.

Howard Rigsby’s short story Dead Man’s Story shows that it’s no safer to live in the Florida Panhandle than it is anywhere else. Joe Root is a Florida game warden who knows,

‘..every swampy piece and piney stretch and bayou from Port St. Joe to Pensacola.’

One night, he comes upon a group of game poachers and confronts them. They try to first bribe him, then threaten him. He responds to neither approach and refuses to back down. The poachers think they’ve solved their problem when they kill Root. But they haven’t reckoned with Joe Root. He has his own way of bringing these killers to justice.

I don’t think a discussion of Florida crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Elmore Leonard. Many of his stories, including Maximum Bob, take place in Florida. In that novel, Florida Department of Corrections Officer Kathy Diaz Baker is starting her own life again after ending a disastrous marriage. She no sooner gets settled than she begins to get some very unwelcome attention from Judge Robert ‘Maximum Bob’ Gates. Gates isn’t a particularly nice person, especially if you ask the many people he put behind bars (he got his nickname because of his fondness for issuing the longest sentences the law allows). Baker is not fond of Gates, but she can’t ignore it when she learns that one of her parolees may be trying to kill the judge. But it turns out the judge has plans of his own. He’s sick of his New-Age wife, Leanne, and plans to get rid of her by frightening her to death with a dead alligator. Of course, this being an Elmore Leonard novel, things don’t go the way any one of these characters plan…

As I say, Florida is a beautiful place with a lot to offer. Those beaches, that food and drink, that climate, well, it’s all enough to entice anyone. But do be careful…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jimmy Buffett’s Floridays.


Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, Elmore Leonard, Howard Rigsby, John D. MacDonald, Paul Levine, Uncategorized

45 responses to “I’m Back to Livin’ Floridays*

  1. I’ve not visited the states yet, well actually I did as a baby, apparently, but I have no recollection of this. I’m not a great flyer, but maybe one day I’ll put that aside. After reading this though, I’m not so sure Florida’s at the top of the list 😉

  2. I haven’t been to Florida either, although as you can imagine my boys are very keen to go indeed! I somehow don’t think it’s for the crime or the nature there…

  3. When I started to read this post I immediately thought of disposing of a body in Florida’s pan handle. Let the gators do the work. Many great thrillers have used this in their stories and yet, it’s still quite an effective means of destroying evidence.

    • You know, Sue, it really is! There are very deep swamps in Florida with plenty of alligators where you would never, ever find a body. And you’re right that that’s been used in some terrific thrillers. Hey, it works…

  4. I think the only books I’ve read set in Florida are the Travis McGee ones, but whenever anyone mentions Florida I think of the great film Key Largo. Another example of why Florida hotels might not always be the ideal location for a restful break…

    • Oh, absolutely, FictionFan! Key Largo is a terrific film, and I’m very glad you mentioned it. As you say, a good reminder that Florida isn’t perhaps the most restful and peaceful of places..

  5. Howard

    I have enjoyed the Max Freeman books of Jonathon King. Another great group of Florida books: the Jack Swytek novels of James Grippando. A third is the Thorn series by James W. Hall.

  6. I also recall Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, not technically a mystery perhaps, but set in Florida and with mystery elements and later of course made into the famous film with Bogart and Bacall.

    • That’s quite true, Bryan. I hadn’t thought of that one when I prepared this post, but you’re right that it’s a great example of a Florida-based story.Thanks for filling in that gap.

  7. Kathy D.

    Key Largo – great film. So, too, To Have and Have Not, which was the origin of the famous “whistle” scene with Bogart and Bacall.
    Carl Hiaasen’s books are hilarious. I read a few by Jonathon King, and the comment above reminds me of his books.
    I’d like to read Solomon v. Lord books, but they aren’t available at the library. Are they witty?
    And, on my one trip to Florida, in about 1980, one thing I remember is that Sanibel Island was the hottest place I’ve ever visited – got burned to a crisp in less than an hour.
    Now gators as methods of murder: How ingenious. A book could be titled: Alligator Assassin!

    • I think that’d be a great name for a book, Kathy. And alligators do make very effective murder weapons… You’re right, too, that it certainly gets very hot in Florida, especially in the summer. And it’s a very humid sort of heat, too, which, for many people, makes it all the worse.
      Key Largo and To Have and Have Not are, indeed, excellent films – real classics. Great plot, characters and dialogue. And whistling. Oh, and you asked about the Solomon and Lord books. They are, indeed witty.

  8. Margot: I still consider the Travis McGee the best mystery series written. Travis, living his retirement in chunks, has a faint echo of Nero Wolfe in that he only works when he needs money to sustain his lifestyle. He was railing against the draining and paving of south Florida long before it became a cause. I wish there could have been another dozen in the series.

    • That series is most definitely a classic crime fiction series, Bill. As you say, MacDonald had important things to say about development in Florida a long time before it became a well-known issue. And yet, the novels aren’t preachy. They tell compelling stories, and McGee is a unique and interesting character.

  9. I read a lot of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series when I was younger, but I want to start all over and re-read them. I want to read Paul Levine’s books too. Florida is one of the few states that I visited a lots before I moved to California: Panama City, Pensacola (had relatives there), some cities on the Atlantic Coast, but never got as far as the Keys.

    • I think the Travis McGee novels are always worth a re-read, Tracy. And I hope if you get the chance to read some of Levine’s series, that you’ll like those novels. It sounds as though you’ve done your share of travel in Florida, too. There’s definitely plenty to see and do in the state, no doubt.

  10. I’m not too sure how Florida’s tourism industry will take this post Margot 🙂 I’m loving the examples though!

  11. Nice post, Margot. Wasn’t Hemingway connected to Key West? I remember some of his news reports and stories were set in and around Florida. I think it was Michael Caine who said he chose to live in Florida because it was the only place on the American map that had sunshine throughout the year.

  12. Florida is a wonderful state for crime writers. I think it’s all that heat and humidity and the aggravation of big bugs and hurricanes and wild thunderstorms. Keeps everyone’s stress level high!! 😀

    • Absolutely, Pat! 🙂 Hey, folks, Pat’s two Silvia Thorn and Willie Grisseljon novels take place partly in Florida. They’re absolutely great – try ’em out!

  13. Kathy D.

    Maybe Perry Mason could have taken on, “The Case of the Cutthroat Croc,” in an Everglades swamp.

  14. A plan to scare your wife to death with a dead crocodile? What could possibly go wrong?

  15. Howard

    Yesterday I forgot to mention the three Jimmy Paz novels of Michael Gruber: Tropic of Night, Valley of Bones, Night of the Jaguar. Paz, a Miami PD detective, investigates three cases with supernatural overtones.

    Gruber is a really great writer; I have read every book of his that I could find, and I cannot recommend him highly enough.

    He is perhaps best known as the ghost writer of the first fifteen books of the Robert K. Tanenbaum stories featuring Butch Karp and Marlene Ciampi. Gruber’s ghosts are the best ones in that 100% ghosted series. (I guiltily admit that I continue to read these books even though the plots sometimes go in rather goofy directions. I just really like the characters.)

  16. Florida is a part of the States that I haven’t visited: I think I’ve read too many of the books and they have put me off….

  17. Col

    All of the examples are sitting on the shelves (tubs actually) with the exception of Rigsby – I shall have to look him up. I’m glad someone mentioned James W. Hall also.

  18. I think I have read a few where the Everglades and the gators have been prominent – prominent in my memory anyway 🙂 If I remember correctly think Kathy Reich’s wrote a short story Swamp Bones set in the Everglades.

    • You have a good memory, Carol! Swamp Bones is indeed set in Florida. It’s a prequel to another novel, and it’s one I should have included here. Thanks for filling in the gap.

      • Margot I think any book with gators is somewhat memorable – such a horrific way to die and no evidence is usually left – I think John Connolly and Linda Ladd featured these creatures and landscape too in some of their books.

        • You’ve got a point, Carol. Death by ‘gator would be awful, and as you say, so little evidence left to show what happened. I think there was even a James Bond film where Bond was nearly dinner for some alligators…

  19. I often go to Florida – mostly on the Gulf Of Mexico side and so I enjoyed reading your post about Florida set novels.
    As I was your reading your post, Margot, I thought that it would make an interesting read in one of these airline magazines that you find on airplanes – one, of course on its way to Florida.:)

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s