In Search of the Great Miami Novel

Surely there's more to local literature than crime and exile

"What we're coming to here is a foreign capital on our shores," Fairbairn told the Miami Herald shortly after his novel's publication. "A New Havana, the capital of free Cuba. The possibility of a Cuban coup in Miami is part of the book. Now, I know that's wild, but look, who can say that we're not headed that way?"

Who indeed. A Newsweek critic, writing at the time, applauded Street 8's masterfully taut prose but found its tales of street violence and Cuban-exile demagogy more Hollywood than "credible." Twenty-six years later, with political pandering to the pain and loss of exiles an established tradition, it's getting mighty hard to tell the film scripts from the daily headlines.

"He was ahead of his time," Standiford says of Fairbairn, who was a long-time resident of Coconut Grove. Outside of Miami, "people had no idea what he was talking about; they still don't. Even up to the Bush election [of 2000] they weren't clued in to what was going on down here."

Mitchell Kaplan inside his Books & Books shop
Jonathan Postal
Mitchell Kaplan inside his Books & Books shop
Murder on the Beach's Joanne Sinchuk with another satisfied customer
Jonathan Postal
Murder on the Beach's Joanne Sinchuk with another satisfied customer

Still, if Street 8 is our political grail, much of its social timbre exists only in memory now -- South Beach as a decaying Jewish shtetl; Coconut Grove as the sad repository for the Summer of Love's morning after, a mass of dead flowers and hippie detritus.

Of course, by Standiford's way of thinking, there are any number of worthy successors to Street 8 already in print, and if you're willing to poke around Delray Beach's Murder on the Beach bookshop, you'll find literally hundreds of candidates on display.

This past winter, after five years in Sunny Isles Beach, Joanne Sinchuk relocated her mystery-only bookshop northward in order to "follow my customers." Some physical traces of Murder on the Beach's old locale have also come along, in the form of two eight-foot-high slabs of sheetrock emblazoned with disturbing blood-red palm prints. Mystery writers, local and national, have flocked to Sinchuk's store to read from their works, but none leave without first dipping a hand in red paint for a unique autograph.

Some leave behind a little more: Carl Hiaasen developed an eerie allergic reaction to the paint; the flesh on his hand began peeling off. Other authors seem to have had a cheerier experience. Beware the full moon over Sunny Isles! adorns Edna Buchanan's hand, while John Sanford's adjoining print warns, Beware of Edna Buchanan!

"There are two people in South Florida who don't need a last name," Sinchuk quips as she leads the way to her local-authors section: "Fidel and Edna." Buchanan's work remains a strong seller, both her vivid accounts of her years as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Herald crime reporter and her crime fiction, much of which pales in goriness to her true-life tales of garroted airline stewardesses, weightlifters beaten to death with their own barbells, and children-chomping crocodiles. But there are many more Florida authors here, with every imaginable twist on the mystery milieu. And, Sinchuk notes, the classic Philip Marlowe archetype now has Preston Allen's African-American heroine and Carolina Garcia-Aguilera's pistol-packing, high-heeled cubanita for company.

One of Sinchuk's personal faves is Vicki Hendricks, whose 1995 debut Miami Purity was written as her FIU student thesis. Far from the standard whodunit, Miami Purity managed to reinvigorate traditional noir with a jolt of unabashed erotica, and not least, a female perspective. Set amid the streetwalkers and by-the-hour motels of North Miami, the book was praised by the St. Petersburg Times as "a powerful psychological probe into the other side of the Redneck Literature genre made popular by male authors Charles Bukowski and Harry Crews [in] that it's written in the girlfriend's voice."

How do you top that? Sinchuk pulls off the shelf a copy of Hendricks's 1999 followup, Iguana Love. The title is not a metaphor, she deadpans. So is Hendricks, now living in Hollywood, a contender for the Great Miami Novelist?

For that honor, Sinchuk turns to Charles Willeford, whose 1984 Miami Blues is the acknowledged ground zero for South Florida's current thriller scene. Collectors and critics alike agree on that -- a first edition in mint condition can fetch $500.

Willeford, who died in 1988, wasn't the first crime novelist to use Miami as his setting -- John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series struck commercial gold in the Sixties, and in their Orange Pulp anthology, professors Maurice J. O'Sullivan and Steve Glassman salute the forgotten Thirties hard-boiled paperbacks of Brett Halliday and Jonathan Latimer. Willeford, though, not only dove into the city's over-the-top surrealness, ethnic friction and all, but made that very wackiness as much a lead character as any of his hapless police officers and ex-cons.

If Miami Vice was the cartoon take on the emergent Miami of the Eighties, Miami Blues was its deeper, infinitely more twisted cousin, whose wicked charms were appreciated by everyone from New Yorker essayists to director Quentin Tarantino, who gave a shout-out to Willeford in his film Pulp Fiction. "We take his sort of bizarre humor for granted, but nobody else was writing like that then," says Mitchell Kaplan. "Now there's a whole school of comic absurdity," one that has propelled Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, both devout Willeford fans, onto the best-seller list.

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