I’ve been in love with Florida ever since I tumbled out of my parent’s car as a toddler and ran barefoot into a patch of sandspurs on the banks of Wares Creek. Like most folks in Florida, we moved to the state from someplace else. In the intervening decades, I moved away a few times, but I always come back. Something about the warm, white sand between my toes, the bright, hot sun on my back, the salty, cooling Gulf breeze in my face—not to mention the frequent insanity of the place—yanks me back to Florida every time.
Hence, it shouldn’t be any surprise that my newest book, Privilege (Moonshine Cover May 21 2019) is set on the Gulf Coast of Florida in a fictional town called Desoto Cove, just south of Tampa.
Unlike my prior books, which used humor and an almost-tongue-in-cheek look at lawyers, criminals, and the sheer weirdness of Florida, Privilege is a darker tale, which I’ve dubbed a legal thriller noir. In Privilege, beautiful, but jaded attorney Ruby Randolph is arrested for murdering her snake of a lawyer husband after his misplayed power binge bankrupts a law firm. Most folks think she killed her husband and nobody much blames her—except the honorable cop who loves her. But before too long, Ruby and an angry ex-con with a justifiable grudge and a shared past with Ruby conspire to set each other up for the murder. It’s only a matter of time before the honorable cop gets caught in the crossfire.
With five published book and this new one on the way, all set in Florida, one might ask why is Florida such a rich source and perfect setting for crime fiction, mysteries, Florida noir, cozies, and other genres? Here’s my take on that.
First, Florida, being a lush tropical and sub-tropical land, is hot. Something about all that heat is oddly sexy. Exciting. Primal. Forbidden. Jungle. Or the heat just makes people crazy. It’s Tarzan and Heart of Darkness all mixed up, but with slightly better roads. Remember that scene in Body Heat (a 1981 classic Florida noir movie) where sultry Kathleen Turner wipes sweat off her face and says that she runs a bit of a temperature and is always hot. Well, yeah, she was hot, so hot William Hurt kills her husband for her. That’s what I mean when I say Florida’s heat is sexy. Or crazy. Or just both at the same time.
But it isn’t just the heat, it’s the hurricanes. Yes, I know, with Climate Change and Global Warming everybody can have their own hurricane now, but historically Florida, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean were Hurricane Grand Central. And, sooner or later, most Florida writers tackle a hurricane in our books—Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, Mary Anna Evans, Mary Kay Anderson, and others have all done terrific jobs with hurricanes that act like a dangerous main character. And let’s not forget the grandmother of all hurricane novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
And most of those folks drowning in heat and humidity and waiting for hurricanes came from someplace else. Like me too. That is, Florida has this immense cultural diversity because the state is a hub for migration, immigration, refugees and snowbirds from Up North. We have Haitians, Cubans, Crackers, Mexicans, Michiganders, Indians, Pakistanis, Persians, New Agers, and Aliens from Outer Space. You name it—there’s a community of them living somewhere in Florida. We have all the beauty and talents of these different cultures merging and meshing to form a complex whole, which makes Florida a great state. Yet, and I say this with respect, sometimes the melting pot boils over and creates a mess. Our folks don’t get their folks. Turf wars. Competition for jobs and housing. Finger pointing. Language barriers. All the negatives that come when diverse peoples swarm into crowded cities.
While some of this cultural clash leads to crime, one can’t blame Florida’s crime entirely on our diverse population. We are, sadly, a crime ridden state. Trayvon, Ted Bundy, Shoot-First, home of what was once deemed the official eighth most dangerous city in the USA (not, strangely enough Miami, but Tallahassee, home of the Florida legislature). But none of that is new.
Here’s an ugly truth: Florida’s written history is one of plunder and crime. The first Europeans came to steal gold and, with their superior weapons and vicious germs, killed off many natives along the way. When the natives, the bugs and the sheer thickness of the landscape overwhelmed them, and when it turned out Florida did not have gold or even that Fountain of Youth, European conquest hit a kind of lag-time. But during the War Between the States, Southerners who didn’t want to die to save some rich plantation guy’s “way of life” ran to Florida. That’s right, draft dodgers. And after the Civil War, they stayed on, joined by refugees from the so-called Reconstruction and these folks, with their independent ways and tough hides, helped settle the state.
While the draft dodgers and refugees cleared the scrub, outlaws raced into Florida too. After all, Florida was closer than Texas for a lot of folks. Many of these outlaws, like the serial killer Ed Watson of Peter Mattiessen’s Killing Mr. Watson trilogy, kept running until they hit the Everglades.
The Everglades made a perfect last resort holdout for outlaws. What federal or state official was going to go there, into a river of grass with flocks of mosquitoes the size of birds and alligators the size of dinosaurs. After these outlaws had plundered the plumed birds and hunted the gators to near extinction and the Feds made gator and plume hunting illegal, these men turned to rum running during the failed experiment called Prohibition. When pretty much everybody admitted Prohibition wasn’t that good an idea and rum became legal again, the rum runners had good boats and fished for a while—till marijuana became the new rum and the new Prohibition. Soon, this bled over into cocaine and as I’m pretty sure anybody reading this has seen Scarface and at least one episode of Miami Vice, I don’t need to say more.
Except this: Cocaine was ugly, it led to extreme violence and took all the fun out of the rum running and pot smuggling. But it also created another ripe sourcebook for Florida Crime and Mystery novels.
A sourcebook I’m not quite done plundering myself.