With ALA’s annual convention kicking off just a couple of weeks from now in Orlando, Florida, my mind turns not to eager anticipation of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but to the Florida I know and love from the pages of crime fiction. Yes, I’ve visited the state several times in person and haven’t been so much as overcharged for a meal—never mind threatened by a lunatic with a Weed Wacker for an arm—but years of exposure to writers from John D. MacDonald to Carl Hiaasen have convinced me that their versions of the Sunshine State cut closer to reality than anything sketched by Walt Disney.
Whether you’re headed to ALA or too terrified to visit Florida in person, check out this list of some of the darkest, funniest, and most twisted crime fiction I could find.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay
If you haven’t read these books, you’ve probably seen the show; if you haven’t done either, then surely you know the concept (the main character is a serial killer who kills other serial killers), which is more than enough to justify the book’s placement on this list. Dexter, a cheerful, sociopathic crime fighter who just happens to work for the police department, is a fascinating narrator, appealing and articulate while simultaneously ghoulish and disturbing. He’s a truly original creation who seems right at home in the Sunshine State.
Dead of Night, by Randy Wayne White
White’s Doc Ford series has always radiated an amiable, Margaritaville vibe—in this installment, though, the mild-mannered marine biologist (and reluctant CIA operative) confronts a shocking and incredibly grotesque form of ecoterrorism as he goes undercover to track down a the rogue scientist whose macabre plan to infiltrate Florida’s intercoastal waterway with parasites and rare poisonous snakes is on the verge of being realized. Sound far-fetched? It’s shockingly realistic here, and the parasites’ point of invasion will make you cross your legs and stay far, far away from the water.
Gator a-Go-Go, by Tim Dorsey
Manic spree-killer and native Floridian Serge Storms, along with his perpetually intoxicated sidekick Coleman, dispatches vigilante justice to the high and mighty (and richly deserving) in road trips that careen throughout the state. This inspired lunacy and mayhem suggests Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas cross-bred with Natural Born Killers with Cheech and Chong cast as the leads. With plots verging on incoherent, one book is almost as good as another as an entry point, so why not this one? Serge’s realization that Florida’s lowlifes and criminals may be the state’s last best defense against overdevelopment is particularly on point. Dexter’s affect too flat for you? Try this.
Mangrove Squeeze, by Laurence Shames
Shames’ humor is charcoal, not black, and his books are less violent and explicit than many of his Florida crime-novelist compatriots, but he’s an excellent chronicler of his state. Here, the plot is as offbeat as they come: In Key West, a free spirit stumbles on a Russian Mafia scheme to use T-shirt shops as fronts for selling contraband including (but not limited to) plutonium. A budding romance with a Wall Street escapee turned B&B operator keeps getting interrupted by those pesky Russians, who simply want to manufacture their weaponized radioactive materials in peace. Delightfully offbeat and thoroughly entertaining.
Miami Purity, by Vicki Hendricks
This knockout debut might seem like an odd entry on this list. A powerhouse modern noir, it fits better alongside the works of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson than the technicolor zaniness of Carl Hiaasen. On the other hand, it is about a topless dancer trying to go straight by taking a job at a dry cleaners, only to find herself overpowered by the intense sexual heat generated by the boss lady’s son. And the frank narrative voice of Hendricks’ doomed heroine, Sherri Parlay, is something you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. A tale of sexual infatuation and murder set at a dry cleaners? Yeah, it belongs here.
Off the Chart, by James W. Hall
Hall tends to focus more on Florida’s natural world than the neon apocalypse of its cities, but the dangers of that world are very real, and his villains are always fascinating and larger than life. In this case, the bad guy is a psychotic developer and wanna-be pirate who’s intent on stealing beach bum Thorn’s beachfront Key Largo property. Needless to say, hard-ass Thorn doesn’t respond well to invasions of his space. When the psycho commandeers a yacht and takes a hostage Thorn cares about, Thorn releases his inner animal in response. The Thorn series is consistently excellent; you might also want to try Hell’s Bay (2008).
Skin Tight, by Carl Hiaasen
Let’s face it, if you’re reading this list, you’ve probably already read Hiaasen, the Dave Barry of surrealistic crime fiction. But if you haven’t, and you’re ready to take care of that omission, where to start? Yes, Tourist Season (1986), with its terrorists who feed tourists to crocodiles, is a perfect book for your beach bag, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you make the acquaintance of Mick Stranahan, a retired investigator targeted by an incompetent plastic surgeon and threatened by a series of hired killers that includes a psycho named Chemo whose prosthetic arm is a Weed Wacker. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, maybe your vacation plans include an educational trip to Colonial Williamsburg.
Torch, by John Lutz
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee set the standard for Florida knights-errant, standing guard between the civilized world and the subterranean sickness always threatening to ooze out of the sinkholes. Lutz’s Fred Carver is cut from the same cloth as McGee, only his Florida would be all but unrecognizable to his predecessor. Here, a married woman hires Carver to follow her and her lover; soon the duo and the woman’s husband are all dead. Lose some, win fewer is the equation at work in the author’s vision of the state.
The Way We Die Now, by Charles Willeford
Willeford’s extensive catalog is, sadly, too little known today. Even his Hoke Moseley series (starting with Miami Blues, 1984), which married his dark sensibilities to a more commercially successful format, tends to be remembered only by crime-fiction collectors and cognoscenti. But they’re still in print! In The Way We Die Now, the fourth book to feature the grizzled, ruminative Miami police detective, Hoke goes undercover to investigate a South Florida farmer who’s suspected of killing his laborers. Before you can say, “Later, Gator,” he finds himself up the creek without a paddle, over a barrel, and victim of any other hard-luck colloquialism you care to mention. It’s dark and twisted stuff but not without Willeford’s ever-present deadpan humor.
Nine books not enough? See also Bill Ott’s “Hard-Boiled Gazetteer: Florida,” from the May 1, 2001 Booklist.