Staring at the Sun: Adam Gopnik’s “Rise of Florida Crime Fiction.”

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Adam Gopnik




Staring at the Sun: Adam Gopnik’s “Rise of Florida Crime Fiction.” by J. David Gonzalez

On 'the brazen weirdness' of Florida crime fiction.

July 23rd, 2013 reset - +

IF YOU MISSED IT when it came out, The New Yorker’s Summer Fiction issue was subtitled “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and themed as such. It had killer fiction by Jhumpa Lahiri, Sherman Alexie, and Ed Park, an excerpted Cormac McCarthy screenplay, and a Hammett reprint, as well as true crime stories by George Pelecanos and Joyce Carol Oates. What most caught my eye however, was Adam Gopnik’s “In the Back Cabana: The Rise and Rise of Florida Crime Fiction.” I’m from Florida, you see, and I get thrilled to the gills when someone looks to make sense of our literary heritage. And when you talk about Florida crime fiction, the waters here run deep.

Gopnik draws the expected line from the postwar Los Angeles model — shadows and neon, puddles in alleys, duplicitous dames threatening to bring the whole operation down — to the sun-soaked ‘60s of South Florida crime, beginning with John D. MacDonald. And it makes sense that way. MacDonald adores atmosphere like Chandler does, revels in detail and description, is a master craftsman of dialogue. His Travis McGee is Chandler’s Marlowe with a suntan. Sort of. He’s meditative, eco-conscious, lives on a houseboat, and echoes Marlowe with equal doses cynicism and altruism. He’s the kind of character Chandler would have created had he lived on Biscayne Bay instead of Bunker Hill.

So, what began as L.A. noir, Gopnik posits, has since been transmuted as the fiction of Florida glare. The bizarre, upside down cousin of L.A. noir. A Pink Floyd album cover in reverse; darkness shooting in, brightness beaming out. As a designation with which to describe a brand of crime fiction, Florida glare is brilliant — pun not intended, but neither avoided. To quote from Gopnik, “Where in the noir tradition crimes took place, melodramatically, at night, here [in Florida] they take place, matter-of-factly, in the middle of the day.”

This speaks to the age-old maxim about Florida: a sunny place for shady people.

This speaks to the thematic resonance of James W. Hall’s debut novel, Under the Cover of Daylight, published in the 1980s, a decade that also saw monumental “Florida glare” novels from the likes of Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, Edna Buchanan, Thomas Sanchez, and Carl Hiaasen.

This speaks to Tony Montana, soaked in gore, aiming his pistol in the middle of Ocean Drive.

Florida glare not only evokes atmosphere much in the same way “noir” does, it also speaks to what the poet Nick Vagnoni refers to as “the brazen weirdness” of Florida. In short, I’m all in on Florida glare as its own pocket of genre.

Where I take exception to Gopnik’s outlining of the Florida crime fiction family tree (Australian pine? Gumbo limbo?) is the suggestion that this brand of literature starts with MacDonald and ends (dissipates?) with Hiaasen. It’s not entirely his fault, of course. The whole of Gopnik’s essay works to establish the bare essentials of the history of Florida crime fiction, then uses the second half to place Carl Hiaasen’s newest novel, Bad Monkey, into the established context. As far as shill pieces go, you could do worse. Gopnik manages to dip his toes into the Florida tide pools of ecological concern and real estate bust and boom  —  and its reflection of an American condition  —  and acknowledges that the novels have less to do with “crime” in the canonical, literary sense and more to do with chaos and circumstance.

But to describe Florida glare as something that spun off of L.A. noir is to imply that it wouldn’t exist without the fathering of Hammett and Chandler. That is to imply that Florida glare hasn’t been here all along, staring you square in the mug.

In fact, Florida has a noir tradition dating back over a hundred years. One of the very first accounts of trouble in paradise comes from a one A.C. Gunter. His Don Balasco of Key West tells the story of a government taxman, Thomas Duff Mastic. Here’s a quote from the opening page:

“Hang me if I understand this!” mutters the United States detective to himself, for it is in this capacity Mastic is attached to the Revenue Department. “Now, if I had been told to shadow and track Mr. Estrabon Balasco, who is the most outspoken Cuban sympathizer in that nest of Cuban patriots, and prevent his sending a filibustering expedition with arms and explosives to Gomez or Maceo, I would have understood it quick enough — but to place myself under the orders of Don Balasco — that’s what he’s called there. Great Scottie!”

In other words, Mastic is sent to Key West to bring down a ring of illegal wreckers run by a militant Cuban dissident. Don Bolasco of Key West was originally published in 1896. 189-freakin-6.

The turn of the 20th century saw the rise of pulp detective and mystery novels, and Florida weighed in with Bessie Marchant’s The Secret of the Everglades (1902) and Edward Hurst’s Mystery Island (1907) and, in 1914, a full decade before he wrote his first Charlie Chan mystery, Earl Derr Biggers penned the scam-bordering-on-satire Love Insurance, which he set in the fictional San Marco, a town closely modeled after St. Augustine.

With the boom and bust of the 1920s and 1930s, desperate times called for desperate measures and Florida crime fiction went digging for buried treasure in every swamp the state had to offer. Absalom Martin’s Kastle Krags (1922), Albert Payson Terhune’s Black Caesar’s Clan (1922), and Arthur Somers Roche’s The Pleasure Buyers (1925) all promised unimaginable riches to those who dare brave the rising tides of danger.

The 1920s also gave us a pair of high water moments in the history of Florida noir. Florida gained its first-ever serial detective, Dr. Edward Lester, a Jacksonville physician who applied his medical expertise together with a scalpel-sharp eye for detail and his ample social connections to solve cases in three successive novels, Hidden Eyes (1920), The Eye Witness (1921), and Ashes of Evidence (1921), written by Eric Levison.

But what most would agree was the most seismic moment in Florida noir history was when Carroll John Daly, one of the most highly regarded writers for Black Mask, a magazine dedicated to detective, mystery, adventure, romance, and spiritualism stories (although westerns would soon edge out spiritualism), brought his hero, Race Williams (“I ain’t afraid of nothing providing there’s enough jack in it”), down to Miami to track down a notorious Florida gang in his sixth novel, The Hidden Hand (1929).

In the 1930s, Baynard Kendrick wrote a series of novels that introduced deputy sheriff Miles Standish Rice, and then, in 1939, Brett Halliday opened the Miami office of Mike Shayne in Dividend on Death. For more than 70 novels, Shayne and his ever-present bottle of cognac tackled all manner of baddies up and down the state of Florida.

Then the floodgates burst.

Through the ’50’s and ’60’s, Florida was busy crafting its own Southern-fried version of the West Coast School of white-knuckle noir. An amalgam of its frontier history and private dicks gone south for the winter, Florida noir arrived at a cosmopolitan crime entirely its own. Novels with titles like Never Bet Your Life (George Harmon Coxe, 1952), I’ll Die For You (Stephen Ransome, 1959), and The Hated One (Don Tracy, 1963) riddled Florida’s literary landscape like bullets.

From this point on, devotees of Florida noir will duel to the death about who belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of Florida crime. John D. MacDonald, who wrote 21 novels featuring Travis McGee. Charles Willeford (hands down my favorite) who ran the state’s gamut with tales of Southern Baptist cock-fighters and psychopathic murderers on the lam in South Beach. Edna Buchanan, who parlayed her reportage for the Miami Herald of the cocaine cowboys into seminal works of noir, both fiction and nonfiction — her The Corpse Had a Familiar Face (1987) reads like sensationalist tabloid trash, except every word of it is true.

Ed McBain. Elmore Leonard. Carl Hiaasen.

By this point, Florida had officially cemented its place as one of America’s reigning snake pits of sin and seduction, to say nothing of the boom in the ’90’s that included Les Standiford, Barbara Parker, Randy Wayne White, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, and Tim Dorsey, to name a few.

And then there are closely related novels, although they’re not “noir” in a traditional sense.

Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937) portrays a Key West not unlike a Western saloon, fisticuffs and famine rubbing elbows with the newly rich and the entirely desperate. Joy Williams’ Breaking and Entering (1988) features a young couple who rob homes and identities up and down the state like an existential version of Bonnie and Clyde. Peter Matthiessen’s Killing Mister Watson (1990) is Apocalypse Now by way of the darkest heart of Florida. More recently, John Brandon’s Citrus County (2010) told the story of Toby, a young juvenile delinquent so confused by his feelings of infatuation that he kidnaps his heart’s desire, stows her away in a cave only he knows the location of, and watches as his prank tears his hometown apart.

Naturally, Florida glare shows no sign of fading any time soon. Jeff Lindsay and his Dexter books alone have made sure of that. Throw in the superior talents of Preston Allen and Ace Atkins, as well as one of the most macabre mistress to ever pen Florida crime fiction, Vicki Hendricks, and it seems pretty clear that whether or not Florida glare as a designation will stick, the literary stewardship of Florida crime fiction certainly rests in the brightest of hands.

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J. David Gonzalez writes fiction almost exclusively set in Florida and is currently at work on his first novel. He lives in Los Angeles.

For more information on contemporary Florida crime fiction, check out the Florida Book Review’s Crime Writing archive, as well as the absolutely stellar Orange Pulp: Stories of Mayhem, Murder, and Mystery, without which most of this could not have been written.

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