The victim died of lead poisoning–a dozen bullets from a submachine gun. The sheet-covered body sped off in a coroner’s truck. It was 1988, the tail end of Florida’s so-called Cocaine Cowboy War. The war was mainly waged in the Miami area, but not entirely. A drug gang had driven up the Tamiami Trail and blitz-attacked a home in north Sarasota, spraying the interior with automatic fire and instantly killing someone inside whom they were apparently upset with.
As far back as high school, I had always wanted to be a novelist—more specifically, a Florida mystery writer. I had grown up on the east coast in a small town about an hour north of Miami called Riviera Beach, and my plans were to get a job at a newspaper and build up the writing muscles until I was ready for a full-length work. I’d always thought I would work for the Palm Beach Post or some other paper in that area, but then a scholarship took me out of state to Auburn University in Alabama. Little did I know that this was the beginning of a serendipitous chain of events, like a ricocheting bullet, that would take me to my destiny in Sarasota. Even less did I know of Sarasota’s rich literary heritage, which would end up cementing my foundation and launching my career as a mystery writer.
It started after graduation when I became a cub reporter at a tiny newspaper in Montgomery. The publisher soon became the editor of the Tampa Tribune, and he recruited me to return to my home state. My first assignment: work out of a small bureau in a strip mall near the airport and cover Sarasota County.
So here I was, back in the sunshine of my childhood, standing with my press pass on the front lawn of a house in Sarasota.
I smiled at the crime tape, living my dream. There were just a few police officers left at the scene of the shootout, and I was chatting with a sergeant.
He suddenly stopped with a look of concern at the dwindling law enforcement presence, and said something like, “We don’t have enough firepower.”
“What?” I said.
“They could come back,” he said. “We don’t have enough firepower.”
“Oh.” I looked over my shoulder and gauged the sprinting distance to my car. “Well, that’s good to know.”
I had always heard that Sarasota was rich with culture, but not this kind. From all the reports, the city’s closest thing to a crime wave was when Pee-wee Herman got arrested in the X-rated movie theater. But it was a refreshing change, since my first assignment had been to cover a weird vulture migration in Englewood.
Given my aspirations, at that very moment standing on that lawn, I knew I had come to the right place.
So I toiled along, living in a clapboard duplex deep in an orange grove off Proctor Road near the Interstate. (Remember when there was open land west of I-75? The field where I lived is now a hundred homes with screened-in pools and a big cement wall around the place.) I filed stories on car accidents and council meetings and near constant brush fires in North Port and a push to make the downtown core a less depressing place by getting rid of the vacant lots full of weeds and broken glass (try to imagine that now standing outside the condominiums and restaurants).
But a drug shoot-out was the exception that proved the rule. Sarasota was delightfully quiet, which meant there wasn’t always breaking news for a reporter. That’s where the “evergreen” feature stories came in—timeless articles you could write in advance on uneventful days and drop into the paper as space required. So I logged company miles driving all over the county, writing about Myakka River State Park, Selby Gardens, every possible angle on John Ringling, a world-class butterfly collection and the “killer, swooping turtles” at Snook Haven. I did a first-hand account of hunting for massive prehistoric shark teeth in the Venice surf, buying a professional basket and everything, but I could only come up with teeth the size of my own. Little did I know how well this material would serve me in my next career (file that thought).
Meanwhile, I discovered that I was living in the midst of literary history, rich with writers like MacKinlay Kantor and Stuart Kaminsky and John D. MacDonald. Kantor wrote more than 30 novels and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1956. Kaminsky wrote four different mystery series, the last being the Lew Fonesca tales set in Sarasota, and won just about every award in the field including the Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America. MacDonald is considered the godfather of the Florida fiction subgenre. His Travis McGee mystery series, set on the Busted Flush houseboat in 1960s Fort Lauderdale, influenced many of the writers that followed. They and other writers regularly visited a local restaurant for their famous “Liar’s Poker” games, the Florida equivalent of the Algonquin Roundtable. The vibes couldn’t help but soak in through osmosis.
Not only that, but I was working for a Sarasota journalism institution: my editor, Rick Barry, who probably got tired of me begging for more stories of his friendship with MacDonald. My favorite: Barry did an interview with the author fairly deep into the Travis McGee series. McGee was a gin man, and MacDonald offhandedly remarked that he was toying with the idea of having his character switch from Plymouth gin to Boodles.
A few hours after the newspapers hit the stands, there was a knock at Rick’s door. He was presented with a case of Boodles, along with a new set of crystal. He took it inside and the phone rang. It was MacDonald: “Guess what just arrived at my house?”
The dream continued. Two years into my Sarasota juggernaut—between an article on Lido Key erosion and more stories about John Ringling—I began work on what would become my first novel, Florida Roadkill. I sweated hours over every paragraph, coming up with what I thought was some of the finest sparkling prose on Florida ever committed to paper, a veritable rhapsody to my beloved home state.
I was on my way. That’s what I told myself in 1990 on Siesta Key, as I sat at the bar in the Crescent Club at noon, drinking beer and editing print-outs of my soon-to-be bestseller.
Fast-forward, seven years later. No book, no progress, nothing. Just a file cabinet of disconnected, directionless debris. It was like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, during the narration over the opening sequence, where he keeps starting a book over and over again. That was me. I had about 40 chapters, all No. 1.
Then an epiphany. Over my years in newspapering, my sense of outrage had been sparked by a parade of arrogant jerks who were ruining the state, exploiting seniors and the environment and generally living by the code that rules only apply to others. I decided they needed to die.
In a book, of course.
But a regular protagonist couldn’t remain a positive character if he just went around killing, regardless of my excellent reasons. So I decided to start with a hateful villain and bring the audience around to liking him through his choice of victims, as well as his underlying moral code to defend All Things Florida.
But obviously, since he’s killing all these people, he must be insane. And his treatises on our fair state—while containing a certain thread of logic—must clearly be psychotic gibberish. An energy-saving light bulb flickered over my head, and I ran to my filing cabinet. Where was that thing I wrote seven years ago?
The book sold immediately in several countries. I quit my job and hit the book tour. (My first signing ever was at Circle Books on St. Armands Key—another Sarasota coincidence? I think not.) The novel wasn’t what a lot of readers had expected. Take the beginning of the book, where I’m establishing my killer’s motivation and character. I had him go off his meds, suffer a psychotic break and climb a highway sign over the Interstate near the Gulf coast. When police try to get him down, he launches into a protracted and insane rant about the distressful state of the state.
Probably my easiest chapter. Remember that piece of sparkling, personal prose I had written soon after arriving in town? I just inserted it as the disturbed ramblings of a serial killer. At one of my early signings, a psychiatrist referred to the passage and asked if I had any formal medical training, because I appeared to have great insight into mental disease.
I thought back to years ago, sitting at the bar in the Crescent Club and smiling to myself oh-so-pleased as I read my essay, and I looked at the doctor and rubbed my chin solemnly. “Yes, I have had training,” I said.
Which brings up Randy Wayne White.
While pursuing the dream of becoming a novelist, I was inspired by a row of books over my computer—hardcovers of all the great Florida writers I held in awe: Bones of Coral, Tourist Season, Miami Blues, Sanibel Flats, Ninety-Two in the Shade.
One of the biggest thrills of getting published—one I hadn’t anticipated—was attending the circuit of Florida book festivals and getting to meet most of my idols backstage. I’ve introduced Carl Hiaasen, been on panels with Michael Connelly, played cowbell on stage with Dave Barry in the Rock Bottom Remainders, and had dinner with Edna Buchanan, of whom I was in such reverence I could barely speak, even though she and my wife were sharing desserts like old sorority sisters.
Some of the best were the Sarasota events. I attended several of the reading festivals that were held at Five Points, where the late Barbara Parker and I posed for crime-writer photos in an alley next to a dumpster. Then she saw a line around the block waiting for Bob Newhart, and walked along the perplexed row of people, shaking everyone’s hands and thanking them profusely for coming to her event.
Another time, at a patron’s reception in the Selby Library, I stood at the top of that grand circular staircase, taking photos of the crowd, because I never knew when the dream might end. I noticed an older gentleman reaching the top of the stairs and about to have a heart attack. He finished panting and reached inside a shopping bag and asked if I would be so kind as to sign a book for him. “Absolutely,” I said. The least I could do for a potentially dying wish.
He pulled his hand out of the bag with a copy of Big Trouble. I looked down over the railing at Dave Barry standing in the middle of the cocktail crowd, wearing the same khaki pants and blue, button-down shirt that I had on. I’d like to say I signed Dave’s book, but for the sake of literary integrity I guided the reader to the elevators.
And last but definitely not least is the Sarasota mystery conference, the only event exclusively dedicated to Florida writers. Over the years, it has hosted virtually everyone of significant note. Like a little kid at spring training games, I’ve collected several posters and programs from the various gatherings, covered with autographs (yes, I’m a fan first). The event was founded more than three decades ago as the John D. MacDonald conference, when the godfather of Florida fiction was still alive and attended. More recently, it has become the Mystery Florida conference—with one of the stated purposes of its name change to now encompass the family tree of writers influentially descended from MacDonald. The list of attendees it’s attracted to Sarasota is nothing less than a roll call of Florida letters: James W. Hall, Les Standiford, Parker, Kaminsky, Tom Corcoran, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera.
And of course, Randy Wayne White.
As I made my early rounds of Florida events, Randy was the only hero I’d been unable to track down and get to sign his books. I had staked out the Polo Lounge at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach. And I was just about to give up when Randy came booming into the bar around midnight.
Carrying a physical frame and expansive personality worthy of Hemingway, he immediately filled the room. A small crowd formed for autographs. The last was me. Not only did he graciously autograph my book, he invited me to his personal table. We became fast friends. In his next novel, he made me an ax murderer; in my next, I made him the worst-selling author in America. That kind of friendship.
During one of his visits to the Sarasota conference (Randy is one of the rare winners of the John D. MacDonald Award), he told me of another, much earlier trip to the city. Long before he was published, he was a huge admirer of MacDonald, so he enlisted some friends to take a sailboat up from Fort Myers to search for the author’s home on Siesta Key.
It was a long voyage, and there was a bit of beverage consumption.
The impaired crew finally entered Sarasota Bay and serendipitously pulled up behind a vernacular waterfront home. They asked a woman standing out back where to find MacDonald’s place.
It was John’s wife.
Informed of the unexpected arrival, an amused and obviously patient MacDonald invited everyone inside.
The next year, Randy made the same journey and arrived in the same condition. John’s wife simply opened the door and called inside: “Your friends are here again.”
And that’s pretty much how Sarasota’s literary tradition continues.
Tampa’s Tim Dorsey has published 13 novels in several languages. Five of his most recent have reached The New York Times bestseller list. He’ll appear and sign books in Sarasota at Circle Books (478 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands Circle) on Saturday, Dec. 3, at 3 p.m. His website is timdorsey.com.
Tim’s Top Five Florida Mysteries
1. The Deep Blue Good-by (John D. MacDonald)
This is the one that started it all. And not just MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, but the novels of all the modern writers he influenced.
2. 92 in the Shade (Thomas McGuane)
Literary masterpiece and counterculture snapshot of Key West in the 1970s. Later made into an art house film starring Peter Fonda. The writing is like fine brandy: I often open to a random page and sip in a few paragraphs. The author later married Jimmy Buffett’s sister, whatever that means.
3. Tourist Season (Carl Hiaasen)
The king of the comic mystery, Hiaasen invented what Dave Barry calls “the-bunch-of-Florida-wackos genre.” This is the first from the award-winning Miami Herald columnist, but anything with his name on it is superb.
4. Miami Blues (Charles Willeford)
How dark can it get? Willeford’s Hoke Moseley police series rivals the most jet-black noir ever to come out of L.A. or New York. Chilling-to-the-bone realism from someone who clearly knows Florida’s culture and underbelly. One of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite authors.
5. The Man Who Invented Florida (Randy Wayne White)
The third installment in the Doc Ford series, this history-laden work illustrated that the Sunshine State’s heritage definitely has a place in mystery.