So it’s now a running joke that a weird or unsavory news story about a random crime is apt to be headlined, “Florida Man…” We asked a couple of crime fiction writers well versed in those stories and in the business of making up their own Florida stories in the form of crime fiction series to talk about why Florida is such ripe territory for the weird and the unsavory. Alex Segura, who writes the Miami-based Pete Fernandez mysteries (the latest of which, Dangerous Ends, is just out), chats with Steph Post, who chronicles the northern Florida Cannon family in her recent Lightwood. Together they take on the Florida Man mythos, the diversity of the state, and some of their predecessors in the grand and wacky tradition of Florida crime fiction (listen to Alex about Charles Willeford, Hoke Moseley is my spirit animal).
Alex Segura: Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of Lightwood? Did you ever think we’d be having this conversation, about Florida crime fiction?
Steph Post: I never thought I’d be writing Florida crime fiction! I wrote Lightwood as a story about the people and the place, rural north central Florida, and the criminal elements were more just extensions of the characters and their lifestyles. It was only afterwards that I found myself in the crime fiction genre—a place that I now feel quite at home in. Before writing Lightwood, I had only vaguely been aware of powerhouse Florida crime writers like Elmore Leonard or Ace Atkins. Were you influenced early on by the Florida crime fiction scene? Did any one Florida writer, or crime writer, inspire you to follow in his/her footsteps?
AS: It’s funny how stories take you into strange, unexpected places. I wasn’t sure if Lightwood was your first real foray into crime, because it radiates confidence and poise. For me, Vicki Hendricks is a huge influence. Miami Purity has to be one of my favorite crime novels ever—it’s dark, sexy, doused in noir and just a great, great book. You can read it in a sitting, too. It packs a punch. I also love how she doesn’t just showcase the trendy spots in Miami. You get to really feel the urban sprawl of the city, and visit the lesser-known parts. The bits that don’t make it to television or movies, where it’s all neon signs and South Beach. That helped me realize I wanted to showcase my Miami, and give the reader a sense of the city I grew up in.
The Hoke Moseley novels by Charles Willeford are also major influences. Hoke isn’t your typical, polished detective—he’s always short on cash, eats and drinks too much and kind of stumbles into solutions as opposed to doing much detective work. The narrative style is much more stream-of-consciousness, befitting the drowsy, humid location. It’s also a glorious snapshot of Miami in the 80s, when it was going through a seismic change, with the Mariel boatlift, the “cocaine cowboys” era of crime and the general fallout from Reaganomics. Willeford gives you the nickel and dime tour of the city and, like Hendricks, doesn’t just focus on the obvious. I revisit those books a lot, and I strive for that kind of realism in how I portray Miami in the Pete books.
The Hoke books are also pretty funny, but not in a “Florida is weird!” way, which I think is a big subset of Florida crime. I like those books, too—especially Carl Hiassen’s novels—but I can’t say I see that reflected in my work, which tends to lean more toward the dark and dangerous, with some flashes of humor.
It’s also tough to mention Florida crime fiction without giving props to John D. MacDonald. The Travis McGee books make for a really compulsively readable series, starting with the classic The Deep Blue Good-By. Same goes for Elmore Leonard, who captures the deadly and bizarre bits of Florida, often well outside of the Miami city limits, perfectly. Rum Punch, which was famously adapted by Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown, is as close as you can get to a perfect Florida crime novel. I’m also really fond of the work of James W. Hall—his Thorn series is unpredictable in the best way. Les Standiford’s Deal books and Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s Lupe Solano novels are also big influences. The latter was the first time I experienced a Cuban-American protagonist, which meant a lot to me as a budding crime writer myself, looking to see a character that reflected my own upbringing. It really opened the door for Pete to appear, and it’s all part of his literary DNA.
Do you find you have to push back a bit, or had to with Lightwood, when it comes to the funny/weird expectation some people might have with Florida crime?
SP: Wow, so you’ve just booked my reading list for the next few months. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t heard of some of these authors, but I now plan to remedy that.
I personally haven’t experienced the pushback you’re talking about, but I know what you mean. For a lot of people, Florida is just the weird, funny place where crazy shit happens. The “Florida Man” chronicles I’m sure have had a lot to do with that and just the makeup of Florida itself. Most of our residents are newcomers or transients and so it makes sense that Florida life and culture is gawked at. Now, I’m not above reveling in the strangeness of my state as a way of asserting my identity, but I do think that people have a tendency to write Florida off too easily.
With my first novel, A Tree Born Crooked, I played this up with a gang called “the Alligator Mafia.” That was definitely an instance of me laughing at outsider’s expectations. In Lightwood, I veered away from the “Floridaness” a bit. I still wanted to set the story in North Florida, but I wanted it to be more of a universal story. I wanted readers to focus more on the characters and their experiences than on surface hallmarks of the state.
But North Florida is always beating beneath the heart of Lightwood. In the light through the slash pines, in the suffocating heat, the love bugs, the sandy back roads. One of the things I so love about your Pete Fernandez series is how much the atmosphere of South Florida contributed to the story. What elements of Miami are essential to your writing? And could Silent City, Down the Darkest Street and Dangerous Ends have taken place in any other setting?
AS: I think Miami is as integral to the series as Pete, actually. When I started the series I knew two things—that I wanted a Cuban-American PI-who-was-not-yet-a-PI as the lead and it had to be set in Miami. I wanted to showcase the city as I saw it and remembered it and I wanted to make it a big part of the stories. I know I’ve hit on the right idea for a Pete novel when it’s clear to me that the story couldn’t happen anywhere else. I try to tie things to Miami’s history and diverse present, too, and really give the reader that same experiential feeling I got from so many killer books when I was first getting into modern crime fiction. Novels like Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues or Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand. These stories not only featured great characters, but they made me want to visit and explore these cities. Well, the safer parts, at least.
Does this mean Pete will always be in Miami? I’m not sure. I live in New York now. I pop down to Miami a handful of times a year to see friends and family, but I also see that the city is evolving. I have to do more research with each book to ensure I’m caught up and reflecting the Miami of today, while still interjecting my feelings about the city. As long as I can find that balance, I’ll feel okay about setting the books there, and I spend enough time in Miami to not feel like I’m shirking my research responsibilities. But even if Pete were to move somewhere else, or have an adventure elsewhere—like he does in Bad Beat, the novella I co-wrote with Rob Hart, featuring his series character, Ash McKenna—it’ll always point back to Miami in a meaningful way, because that’s at the core of the character.
It’s funny to be talking about Florida crime as this umbrella term, because I think the places you and I write about are so different. Miami, to me, sticks out like a sore thumb in terms of the state—it’s unlike any other part of Florida. Do you feel the same about your neck of the woods? What are the parts of North Florida you try to reflect in your stories?
SP: I think one of the most interesting things about Florida is how diverse of a state it is. I’ve lived in St. Petersburg (near Tampa) for seven years and I’ve lost some of my Southern accent since moving away from home. Most people who live where I do now would not necessarily consider themselves “Southerners,” but I very much do. My co-workers are often surprised when some of my Southern upbringing shows itself and my accent has definitely popped back up when I’m mad. So cultural identity really varies depending on the area of Florida you’re from.
I do think that North Florida is its own beast, though. Many of the families have been there for generations and generations because North Florida was settled long before the South Florida area. I wanted to make sure that the clannish aspect of the people came through with my portrayal of the Cannon family. Usually we think of these types of families as living in Georgia or the Carolinas. Appalachian mountain folks. I wanted to showcase the same deep-rooted family systems, but with an attachment to a completely different type of landscape.
So, just getting a little creative here, have you ever wanted to devise a crime for a novel that was absolutely unique to Florida? An event or situation that could happen nowhere else? What would it be?
AS: That’s a great question, though my answer is a bit of a copout, because it’s kind of how I approach each book, in a way. Dangerous Ends is tied so deeply into the Cuba-Miami dynamic, that I don’t think I could tell the same story in a different setting. It’s very much about Miami and Pete’s history with the city and his own Cuban roots. The core crime, in which ex-Miami cop Gaspar Varela murders his wife, has ties to that deeper thread, too, in ways I’m hesitant to reveal too much about, at the risk of spoiling everything! But yeah, I do try to make each book unique to the setting, because otherwise it just becomes a generic adventure where you can “find and replace” the locales. How about you?
Do you think you’ll continue to set your books in North Florida? What’s next for you?
SP: What? No feeding the kidnapped victim to the alligators or having someone murdered by a flock of rabid flamingos? I suppose the Cuban connection will have to suffice. But no seriously, I love what you’re saying about not just “replacing locals” in a generic story format.
As for me, I’d love to do something involving Florida’s history of tourism. A crime taking place in in Weeki Wachee Springs or at The Alligator Farm. Really explore the old Florida amusement scene that still lingers on.
I’m not sure I’ll get around to it, though, as I’ve been veering away from Florida crime lately. Last year I wrote a novel about a carnival traveling through the South, but not Florida, in 1922. At the moment I’m at work on a novel set in the 1890s that spans the globe. I don’t think Florida will even be mentioned in it.
But don’t worry, the sequel to Lightwood will be out next year and I’m hoping to write a third as well. I’d like to round out the Cannons story as a trilogy.
And on that note, where does Pete Fernandez go from here? Dangerous Ends is your third novel with this character. Do you see this being a long running series? Will Pete be around for a while or do you plan to sail out into other waters?
AS: That amusement idea is great. I always think of where a notable crime will occur, or where Pete will be wandering to investigate. In Silent City he gets into a car chase on Duvall Street in the Keys, in Down the Darkest Street he has a face-off with the FBI at Versailles restaurant and there’s a dead body in Peacock Park in Dangerous Ends. It’s so important to make use of the scenery beyond just describing the weather. People know it’s hot.
I’m pretty sure Florida’s strong pull will bring you back very soon. It’s kept me around for years and I’m living in a different state now.
I should mention that you and I are going on a mini-tour of South Florida in May, visiting Books & Books in Coral Gables and Murder on the Beach in Delray Beach—two excellent stores. Really looking forward to expanding on this chat live. It’s like we’re in an indie band.
As for Pete—when I first started writing Silent City, I thought it’d fit nicely as a trilogy. But the more time I spent with Pete and his gang of friends, the more I enjoyed it. As long as I feel like I can add to the overall story and push him forward, I’ll stick around. I’m currently in the middle of writing the next Pete novel, tentatively titled Relics, which spins out of the end of Dangerous Ends, which is why I can’t say much about the plot. But it deals with an element of Pete’s recent past returning in an unexpected way and forcing him to face up to his own part in a tragedy he’s tried to forget.