In Search of the Great Miami Novel

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

Standing in the middle of Murder on the Beach's sprawl of mysteries -- more than 8000 titles -- the genre's popularity is self-evident. But why? Why are so many of Sinchuk's South Florida customers reading mysteries and nothing but? "Many people, myself included, didn't start reading mysteries until they were in their thirties," Sinchuk explains. "That's when you develop your strongest sense of right and wrong. In mystery novels, unlike in real life, you get closure. All the loose ends are wrapped up. That's a satisfying feeling, especially if you live down here."

Carl Hiaasen has his own theory about Miami Lit's division into two camps: "The commercial market." Speaking by phone from his Islamorada home, he says, "The story of exile is tremendous and epic. All that is great material for a novel. For crime, there's an even simpler explanation: Everybody wants to be the next John D. MacDonald. And editors want that too."

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

It might be more accurate to say that everybody wants to be the next Carl Hiaasen. His annual novels regularly sell upward of 200,000 copies, with accompanying six-figure advances. Add in foreign rights, film rights, and paperback sales, and it's easy to see the attraction for aspiring novelists and increasingly beleaguered publishing companies.

Just as appealing, Hiaasen has managed to develop a national audience while consistently setting his characters' sights on Florida's most dire issues, from the disappearing Everglades to real estate speculators to malevolent politicos. Along the way he's become one of the few mystery writers to find his work discussed in the main section of the New York Times Book Review rather than relegated to the "crime" column. Hiaasen himself chalks up such ghettoization to intellectual snobbery, but given the consensus that his work transcends the crime label, might we have a fresh candidate for the Great Miami Novelist?

"Every great novel is about crime," he counters. Like Les Standiford, Hiaasen is proud to wear the scarlet C: "Crime novels have this tag of being too light, but some of the greatest novels of our time have to do with crime, whether it's a crime of the heart or a murder." Accordingly, he doesn't begrudge the growing number of literary carpetbaggers.

"Writers are poachers and vampires by nature," he says. "We're looking for material, for blood. You're not going to move someplace boring. If you want to be on the cutting edge of reality-based fiction, where else would you go but South Florida? I don't blame anybody for moving here. If you'd written a novel with an Elian Gonzalez plot, would anybody have gone for it? Not ten years ago. But now it would be considered passé or a rip-off. Or look at the bizarre excesses of the Pat Tornillo case, where he's ordering adult toys with the union dues of hard-working schoolteachers."

As for his own motivations, let's just say it's in everyone's interest that Hiaasen keep writing. "It's therapy for me," he adds matter-of-factly. "It's what keeps me out of the church tower with a high-powered rifle. This is a legal way for me to work out a lot of serious problems."

After years as a Herald reporter and columnist, he yearned to fashion his own endings. "I vent in the column, sure," he says, "but it's very limiting. You're confined to what's in your notebook -- and that's the way it ought to be. But you get so sick of watching the bad guys get their way. There's a certain hunger for justice, for the balancing of the scales. Say it's a zoning hearing where you know the citizens have no chance of being heard. In a novel you can make that turn out right. Not only are the bad guys not going to get away with it, something really, really bad is going to happen to them."

Suddenly there's a squeal in the background, followed by a crashing sound. "Come here, you little monkey!" Hiaasen growls bemusedly. His three-year-old son Quinn, apparently golfing, has just decided to play through.

While Hiaasen negotiates a cease-fire, it seems a good time to segue to Hoot, his first children's book, and as much a critical and sales success last year as any of his "adult" outings. While his intent may have been merely to serve up a G-rated book for Quinn and the rest of the children in his extended family, the result has been moving. "I've gotten so many letters from kids since Hoot came out," he says. "There's no ambiguity in them, there're no shades of gray." Hoot's tale of a pancake house encroaching on a flock of endangered owls resonated loudly. "Do we try and find another place for the pancake house and save the owls?" Hiaasen asks. "Ninety-nine percent of the kids say it's wrong to kill helpless animals. That's the pure and simple view, and it's the right view. I trust a kid's instinct over a politician's any day."

Hiaasen stops abruptly and hollers in exasperation: "Are we taking our clothes off now?"

You're talking to your son, right?

If we're talking about Cuban-American literature, then we're talking about writing in English," argues Ivonne Lamazares, citing her own highly touted debut novel, The Sugar Island, published in 2000. "It's a Miami story, the story of so many people who live here and who've gone through the same journey." There are plenty of Cuban exiles addressing their diaspora, she adds, but by writing in Spanish they're operating within the context of Latin American traditions. However much she adores the books of Madrid-based Zoe Valdes, "I wouldn't consider her a part of Miami literature, even if she moved here."

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