Tim, a bear-sized guy who frequently wore colorful tropical shirts, was the rare writer who was as funny in person as on the page. We served on quite a few book panels together, including one at the 2018 Bouchercon called “Doing Crime the Florida Man Way.” He always made me (and the crowd) howl with his quick-witted cracks.
Tim had a spectacularly twisted sense of humor, as anyone who ever read one of his 26 novels could tell you. Starting with Florida Roadkill in 1999 and continuing through this year’s The Maltese Iguana, Tim’s books detailed the life, loves, crimes and travels of Florida-obsessed homicidal maniac Serge Storms and his perpetually stoned Sancho Panza, Coleman.
Twenty-six books in 24 years is an impressive output, notes Carl Hiaasen, who has written 13 wacky Florida crime novels for adults in 37 years.
“What a body of work he had,” Hiaasen told me. “He was very prolific – uh, not that I’m jealous or anything.”
Each of Tim’s books ties together a wide array of unlikely plot strands. For instance, in Clownfish Blues, he managed to include scenes involving the practice called “worm grunting,” a stop by the Florida town known as the Psychic Capital of the World, jiggly-cam reality-show antics that aren’t real at all, attempts to manipulate the state lottery, the proliferation of professional sign spinners, the sex lives of furries and the way the old Route 66 TV show somehow contrived to visit Florida even though Florida is nowhere near that famous highway.
The plot is usually set in motion by some trivial pursuit dreamed up by Serge that eventually puts him and Coleman in a position to pull off a ridiculously violent rescue of some innocent party. In Naked Came the Florida Man, for instance, the duo set out to visit the homes or final resting places of such notable Florida authors as Zora Neale Hurston, Stetson Kennedy and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Serge says he wants to highlight those cultural heroes to counteract the spate of “Florida Man” stories, which he notes correctly often involve someone who’s naked.
Of course, Sege and Coleman are the living embodiment of Florida Man — overconfident, often felonious, frequently buzzed and typically oblivious to consequences.
Usually, Tim would slip in some scenes that directly reference real “Florida Man” headlines. There was the one about the guy who tossed an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-through window. And the one about the fellow dressed as an Easter bunny who wound up in a street brawl. And the one about the astronaut in a diaper. And the one about guys on probation lining up to use a convenience store microwave to warm up their phony urine samples before submitting them to be tested. It was fun to read the Florida papers and guess which stories would wind up in Tim’s next novel.
“I get criticized for being outlandish,” Tim told me two years ago during an interview for my “Welcome to Florida” podcast. “But it’s always the true stuff that people think goes too far.”
He’d also occasionally turn Serge loose with a wild monologue about his views on society, religion and so forth. One of his best occurs in Triggerfish Twist when, through a case of mistaken identity, Serge winds up delivering the commencement address at the University of South Florida’s graduation ceremony in Tampa. He talks for three pages.
What most chuckling readers may not realize is how much research Tim put into each book. He drove all over Florida, following the route that he’d laid out for his characters. He’d visit oddball landmarks like the tree in Gainesville that was supposedly planted by Tom Petty, and even stay in sketchy motels that he’d then work into the storyline.
“I’ve got to go to the places in the book,” he explained on the podcast. “I’ll see things that keep it fresh.”
Hiaasen, in discussing Dorsey’s mad methods, shakes his head about that.
“He was much more intrepid about his research than me,” Hiaasen said. “Some of the places he went, I wouldn’t even go.”
Real things that happened to Tim on these trips would wind up in the novels, and real people he’d met would be in there, too. For instance, baseball great Bill “Spaceman” Lee appears in Tropic of Stupid.
This started with Florida Roadkill. While he was making the road trip outlined in that first novel, Tim and a friend bought a pair of tickets from a scalper to see the Miami Marlins play the Cleveland Indians in the seventh game of the 1997 World Series (which the underdog Marlins won in extra innings). At the game, Tim ran into Pulitzer-winning Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry (soon to become an author of wacky crime novels too). Tim’s over-the-top enthusiasm rattled Barry, so that he backed up a step. In Florida Roadkill it’s Serge who encounters Barry at the big game and scares him. Serge, oblivious to his effect on others, concludes Barry must suffer from some sort of nervous condition.
The hyperactive, coffee-swilling Serge loves Florida so much that if he finds someone trying to ruin this paradise or exploit its most vulnerable citizens, he’ll stop at nothing to stop them. That includes killing those very bad people in very creative ways, often involving some Rube Goldberg device he’s created for the purpose. It’s as if Groucho Marx took over the Saw franchise.
At one point, someone refers to him as a serial killer, and Serge objects to the term. He prefers to be called a “sequential” killer.
Tim’s fans all have their own favorite of Serge’s justifiable homicides. Some like the death-by-shrinking-jeans, or the electrocution via amusement park bumper car. Mine is the fate he designed for the maker of porn videos featuring women crushing small animals. He arranged for the guy to be crushed by Lu the Hippo, a real-life resident of Homosassa Springs Preserve State Park once declared by a governor to be an official citizen of Florida.
That’s classic Dorsey – quirky vigilante justice combined with sneaky lessons in Florida’s often bizarre history and culture. On the podcast, I asked Tim what it was like walking around with a serial – excuse me, sequential killer in his head all the time, and he said, “I think that’s a condition of living in Florida.”
Believe it or not, Tim wasn’t a Florida native. He was born in Indiana. But his mother quickly corrected that mistake and brought him to the right state when he was still a baby, so they could live near his grandparents. He grew up in a town in Palm Beach County called Riviera Beach.
“I had a great childhood!” he said. “I had a bike and I rode all over creation.”
He’d go fishing, play pickup ball or explore. He left the state to study at Auburn University in Alabama, but eventually returned to work as a reporter and editor at the Tampa Tribune. Journalism taught him how to write fast, and to write every day, no matter what.
He said he decided to write a novel “because newspapers paid just above the poverty line.” In an early draft of Florida Roadkill, he killed everyone off, including Serge. But when he rewrote it, he reconsidered. Serge was such a fun character, and a way to say some things Tim wanted to say. Why not keep him around for another book or two? (He did kill off Coleman – and then brought him back a couple of books later with the silliest explanation possible.)
He had no expectation of selling that first book, but to his surprise a publisher picked it up.
“Before that first book had come out, I had written the second one,” he said.
Tim’s travels for research enabled him to make a lot of personal appearances at bookstores and festivals. He was always prepared. I once happened to see into the trunk of the big Cadillac road hog he drove. Unlike Serge, who usually has a trussed-up bad guy stuffed next to the spare tire, Tim’s trunk was crammed with boxes of his books, plus samples of the Serge T-shirts, hats and hot sauce he’d sell to his many diehard fans.
“He has a rabid following, with people getting tattoos of images from the books’ cover art,” one book event organizer told the Palm Beach Post in 2021.
One regular stop was the Miami Book Fair International, where Barry frequently recruits visiting authors such as Scott Turow to play with his comically inept band, the Rock Bottom Remainders. Hiaasen would play guitar but become frustrated because Barry refused to share the song list in advance, so he had no way to practice.
But Tim never lost his cool, Hiaasen told me. That’s because he’d picked the perfect instrument to play at these makeshift concerts: the triangle. No matter what the tune Barry called out, he’d simply ting-a-ling away, a broad smile on his face.
That’s the way I’ll remember Tim, playing his own distinctive instrument, coping with challenges in his own clever way, always smiling.
If you’ve never read any of Dorsey’s novels, here are five to get you started. I chose them after consulting former Miami Herald book critic Connie Ogle, South Florida Sun-Sentinel mystery critic Oline Cogdill and Tampa Bay Times book editor Colette Bancroft:
1. Coconut Cowboy: Besides the joy in watching Serge clean up a crooked town modeled on a notorious Florida speed trap, there’s a delightful subplot involving a college student writing a thesis on how Florida is a harbinger of the future of America. His discussion of this thesis is both hilarious and completely accurate.
2. The Pope of Palm Beach: This may be Tim’s sweetest book. Serge winds up doing several author events for a book he didn’t write, and it’s just as hilarious as it sounds (except for the part where a dead body winds up in the library after-hours book return slot). Tim said the oddball events on the book tour were taken from actual events on his own book tours.
3. Shark Skin Suite: Serge decides to help an ex who’s now a lawyer, which at one point leads to him and Coleman putting on jackets that say BAIL BONDSMAN – FUGITIVE HUNTER and then rolling up on sleazy motels and seeing who tries to flee.
4. Orange Crush: Tim told me once that this was his poorest seller because Serge does not appear in the book until about the halfway point. That said, it’s the funniest satire of Florida’s sleazy politics ever written, reflecting Tim’s experiences as the Tampa Tribune’s political editor.
5. Florida Roadkill. Why not start where it all began and see what hooked everyone? The book reads like a spoof of the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as a variety of violent parties pursue a briefcase containing $5 million. The one downside? Once you finish this one, you only have 25 more to go before you run out.