To accompany the publication of Charles Willeford’s novels and autobiography, Murder Room author and regular blogger Deborah Valentine talks Florida crime and traces the murderous tradition of the Sunshine State.
Florida. Land of orange groves and Northern pensioners, swamplands and gators, sunshine and sandy beaches.
And crime. Lots and lots of crime.
In John D. MacDonald’s Deadly Welcome government agent Alex Doyle’s welcome is well-named. Unwillingly sent on an undercover assignment to the bayous and mangrove islands of his youth, a place he left under a cloud amid false accusations of theft, heis now forced to confront a past he has tried very hard to forget. It’s an unexpectedly tender portrait, deftly handling the social prejudices and long-remembered gossip of a small town bypassed by prosperity. Of all the things Doyle thinks he’ll find, kindness isn’t among them. But he’s wrong and unearths some good memories and good people as well as dirty secrets and murderous greed. Sensitive, well constructed and entertaining with an excellent heroine and a villain worth booing at, this is a perfect summer read.
Charles Willeford welcomes us to an altogether different climate in Miami Blues, his first Hoke Moseley novel. The other Miami – not the glamorous Miami Beach but a dangerous urban cesspit reeking of heat-simmered violence. Enter: Junior, a California psychopath looking for new criminal territory. Willeford’s dry, witty prose almost makes him sympathetic. Almost. Especially when Junior takes responsibility for a dim hooker who definitely dances to the beat of her own sociopathic drum. But Junior’s savage side soon rears its ugly head. This city suits him – until he goes head-to-head with Hoke . . . A compelling introduction to the hard-boiled series.
In Hilary Norman’s first Detective Sam Becket novel, Mind Games, the climate is altogether warmer in Miami Beach. Not in the meteorological sense but the emotional connection between characters. Becket is black, the adopted son of devoted Jewish parents. On this foundation rests a stability that has made Becket a well-rounded man rather than a dysfunctional loner. When he meets child psychologist Dr Grace Lucca the stage is set for not only romance but an investigative alliance. A young girl is accused of double homicide. Guilty or innocent, they are both determined to uncover the truth.
These relationships develop further in Norman’s next book, Last Run. Becket and Grace, now married, have an adopted teenage daughter they’re proud of and, after a series of miscarriages, are expecting their first child. All is well. But when a serial killer strikes close to home it spins everything into peril. The contrast between loving family life and truly gruesome crimes makes these novels all the more effective, heightening the tension. Bad things happen to good people – and Norman knows how to tighten the screws. Edge-of-your-seat action and spot-on psychology are her hallmarks.
Another prolific author who ventured into Miami is Elmore Leonard. His Get Shorty starts off in the seedy world of mobsters and loan-sharks where violence is just a misspoken word or perceived disrespect away. When loan shark Chili Palmer breaks the nose of a small-time mobster who ‘borrows’ his leather jacket, he makes an enemy just waiting for an opportunity to pay back the ‘disrespect’. Twelve years later, he finds it. Or thinks he does. And so sets off a caper that takes Chili from the mean streets of Miami to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood hunting for a fraudster who owes the mob money.
With more twists and turns than Mulholland Drive, this is not only a crime novel whose hero has a (dimly recognisable) sense of morality, but a clever satire on the whole movie industry – on which, as a screenwriter, Leonard had an insider’s take. Everyone sees everything through the lens of a camera; even Chili’s search for the fraudster becomes a film pitch. It seems everyone wants to get into the movies, even the most hardened criminal. Funnily enough, Get Shorty was turned into a hit film starring John Travolta. Read the book. Makes you wonder . . .
A Miami native who made a big splash on the small screen and whose morality is decidedly . . . unique is Dexter Morgan, police blood spatter analyst and serial killer. Yes, serial killer. But a good serial killer, if that’s not an oxymoron. Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter introduces this dubious ‘hero’ whose unfortunate inclinations were perceived early by his cop foster father. He virtually trained Dexter as a vigilante, killing the deserving bad. Talk about taking a negative and turning it into a positive, well, it can’t get more extreme. Or more engaging. Dexter sees himself as a monster and certainly no one’s disputing that. What’s appealing, aside from his humour, is his self-deception, brilliantly conveyed by the author’s wry prose. Dexter maintains he doesn’t have emotions – but could it be that he doesn’t recognise emotions for what they are? And when his dreams connect to a set of gruesome murders he is faced with a situation that both appals and excites, tempts and taunts him to the brink of insanity (er, more insanity). There is a delicious twist in this story I so want to hint at, but that would be a spoiler. Even if you’ve seen the TV series, plot-wise the books differ substantially so somebody would probably have to kill me and feed my earthly remains to ELDAN @HachetteHawk.
In the next book, Dearly Devoted Dexter, our lovable monster gets engaged to be married. Which can only highlight the perils of the Miami dating scene.
What’s your favourite crime fiction location? Let us know in the comments sections below.
Nine novels, an autobiography, I Was Looking for a Street, and paperback omnibus editions of Charles Willeford’s work are now available from The Murder Room.
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website.