Ah, 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.