Mack Bennett poured his fifth cup of coffee and lit another Marlboro Light. The window shades were up, but no shadows were cast; it was high noon. Time to get to work, Mack Bennett thought to himself. He was alone in the cramped office, and he held at arm's length the first breakthrough in the case, the one that had begun the night before over bourbons at a strip joint near the Miami Jai-Alai Fronton. Mack's caffeine gaze was percolating on page ten of a pamphlet printed on textured tan stock. He set the evidence aside, padded down the hallway to the kitchen, and fixed a breakfast of four scrambled eggs, toast, a slab of Spam, and a chocolate doughnut that had sat in the refrigerator two days.
The Fixer - a small, harmless-looking man whose appearance belied a deadly dangerousness - sucked on the last bourbon-soaked ice cube in his tumbler. He stared straight ahead at the hypnotically gyrating breasts of the blonde on-stage at the Pink Pussycat. Must be a 36C, he noted mentally. The blonde thrust the crux of her G-string at his face, and the ice cube crunched between steely molars. At that moment (11:16 p.m.), Mack Bennett claimed a stool, snapped his fingers, pointed two of them downward, and smiled as The Fixer turned toward him to acknowledge the gesture, offering Mack a limp, damp handshake.
The Fixer was not a bad guy, Mack was thinking; his nickname was more a joke than a token to any grossly violent deed. Of course there was that one time he attacked a local attorney with a Bic Metal Point pen, but the courts had found it to be justifiable. The Fixer was, however, the sort of man who expected his questions to be answered - at any cost. Just like Mack Bennett.
"How's it going?" The Fixer asked diffidently.
"Shitty." Mack smiled as the two bourbons were set before them by a busty brunette.
"Did you say `titty'?" The Fixer joked, pointing at the barmaid and winking. "Sorry," he added, "but you know how I adore puns."
"Well, she's got nice buns," Mack responded blithely, brightening to the dull conversation.
The two men chuckled nervously and tugged at their cocktails in unison. Mack lit a cigarette and sighed heavily. "So what's up, Fix?"
The Fixer - whose real name was Charles Edward Phixture III - stared straight ahead at what he figured to be a pair of 38Ds and answered soberly. "I want to know the real history of Miami, and how it got this way. And I'm not talking about that dull Howard Kleinberg crap, either." He finished off his whiskey in one big gulp and glanced sideways at Mack to gauge the reaction.
Mack rubbed his temples, clapped his hands together, and pointed two fingers at the empty tumblers. He knew The Fixer was up to something, and he also knew better than to ask what. Big Bust behind the bar smiled before turning her back to fetch the bourbon. "Nice puns," Mack muttered under his stale breath.
As he forced down the aging doughnut and poured his sixth cup of coffee, Mack began to address the Fixer assignment, for which he'd been promised $500 upon completion. He knew he had a solid lead on page ten of the pamphlet - an exhibition of pulp novels set in South Florida and published during the past 50 years. Hell, Mack thought, Miami's only 94 - he already had more than half of what he needed right there. The books were on public display at the main library downtown. He also had Sam Boldrick, listed on the pamphlet as a curator of the exhibition. Perhaps Sam could fill in the other half.
Miami's main public library on Flagler Street can be entered several ways. Mack always preferred the long but gently ascending ochre-and-red-tile ramp next to the fountains, on the south side. Sam's office was a mere one-floor elevator ride up, in the Florida Room.
There hadn't been too many queries about the "Miami Pulp" display, judging from the way Mack's question was greeted. "Ready to see some great trash?" said Sam. A tall, mustachioed man who had worked at the library 21 years and possessed an endless fondness for pulp novels, Sam asked the question graciously, without satire.
"Yeah," said Mack. "Miami trash."
"Okay." Sam smiled his big smile again. "Um - but - um...."
"What is it, Sam?"
"Could you please extinguish your cigarette first?"
Brett Halliday seemed invisible, as if he'd never existed, and that frustrated Mack Bennett, who knew Halliday was the key to the case. His name kept coming up, 22 times in the pamphlet alone. Mack was certain that this guy was the king of Miami pulp authors: among the library's collection were titles such as Murder and the Married Virgin, Die Like a Dog, Murder in Haste, Dividend on Death, and A Redhead for Mike Shayne, all with Halliday's name on them. All featuring a tough, honest, red-haired private dick, name of Michael Shayne. All set in Miami. All pure pulp.
The stream of Shayne novels began in 1939 with Dividend on Death and continued at least until 1970's Fourth Down to Death. That much Mack knew from the exhibition. Reading these hard-nosed stories provided few clues - if any - about the identity of Halliday, although Mack came to know Mike Shayne like a brother.
"Not Mike Shayne necessarily, but his place in Miami history certainly." Mack was not apologetic as he updated The Fixer. "I mean, Halliday doesn't give any bio on his character. What the hell am I s'posed to do, make it up?"
The Fixer looked up from his drink blandly. "This Shayne person was the principal protagonist in 50-some novels and you don't know his bloody background?" When angry, The Fixer often spoke alliteratively.
"Another double," Mack said testily to the blonde on bar duty. "Look, Fix, I didn't write the goddamn books, I just read them. In Dividend on Death, it says Shayne was a freckled Irish lad kneeling by his mother's side in a Catholic chapel. Okay? That's it. He's a widower, about 35, with red hair and gray eyes and lines in his face, and he's big enough to kick both our butts."
The Fixer removed a Bic Metal Point from his coat pocket and jotted a note on the napkin beside him. As Mack continued talking, The Fixer rolled the pen ominously between his palms.
"He drinks cognac and ice water - by the gallon. The guy's a freakin' boozehound. And he never sleeps. Or gets drunk. And he never misses breakfast, ever. He lived on the north side of the Miami River, across the river from where the Big Fish is now, I guess."
"What big fish?" The Fixer blurted hotly. He slammed the pen on the bar and lifted his bourbon abruptly, nearly splashing Mack. "The hell are you talking about?"
"It's a restaurant, Fix. You know the Knight Center, right? Okay, imagine walking west a few blocks, where all the dockyards are now. That's where he lived, as far as I know. He spent a lot of time on Flagler Street - back then everything was on Flagler. Like in A Redhead for Mike Shayne, he goes to see this upscale gunsmith. See, back then - this was about '63 or '64 I guess - back then gunsmiths were craftsmen who knew their business. They weren't sleazeballs selling Uzis under the table to felons in every strip mall."
"Get to the point." The Fixer was still playing with his pen.
"So he finishes with the gunsmith and has to see a lawyer, and the office is only a couple blocks away. On Flagler. See what I mean?"
The Fixer didn't, but he nodded anyway. "Okay, listen. Find this Brett Halliday and ask him. I want to know exactly who Shayne was before I start buying into his view of the history of Miami."
Having taken full advantage of the library's many resources, Mack had come up empty. Nothing on Halliday, nothing except one tidbit from a literary magazine in the InfoTrac system. No leads from the librarians. Little inspiration from the flowing fountains next to the ramp along the south side, where Mack sat atop a low wall, worrying a Marlboro Light. Suddenly Mack snuffed the cigarette and bolted back inside the library. The card catalogue! He hadn't even bothered to check there, stupidly thinking Halliday was too obscure. Five minutes later Mack found himself in the Humanities section.
Brett Halliday, it turned out, wasn't even the author's real name. Mack had suspected as much when he read that small item about Dividend on Death in the Wilson Library Bulletin's June 1982 issue. The novel was being reissued, the article said, and next to Halliday's name was another - Davis Dresser. In Humanities, Mack learned that Davis Dresser had been born in Chicago in 1904 and wrote prolifically under a dozen pseudonyms - Asa Baker, Matthew Blood, Jerome Shard, Christopher Shayne, even Kathryn Culver. But it was under the name Halliday that Davis Dresser had cut his widest literary swath.
Mack marvelled at the list. There was the Jerry Burke series in the late Thirties, and Shayne's run, which Mack now knew lasted from '39 to 1977. And the Morgan Wayne series, from 1952 to '54. Approximately 70 Shayne novels in all, 300 issues of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, dozens of other novels.... Halliday had churned out the stuff like a machine.
Halliday's 25th anniversary as a pulpster was celebrated by the publication of Michael Shayne's 50th Case in 1964. "Two a year," Mack whistled under his breath. He found the 50th Case to be unlike any other Shayne novel. For one thing, it wasn't set in Miami so much as it was set in the fictional towns of Sunray and Moonray, up the coast, around the West Palm area, Mack figured. But there was more to it than that.
In the typical Shayne story from the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, the entire plot unfolded from private-eye Shayne's point of view. He would become involved in some intrigue or another, meet all the characters, play fast and loose with the rules that bind the cops, and solve the crime, usually in a flurry of violence. Though smart, logical, and even somewhat sensitive, Michael Shayne invariably found the sword mightier than the pen - deduction usually gave way to destruction. It was the nature of pulp, and for Shayne, it worked. But the 50th Case was different. Shayne didn't even appear until late in the book.
The story began with a long description of a car salesman at a convention in Miami, missing his wife, whom he clearly loved: "...generally she'd seem to sense how he was feeling, even in her sleep, and she'd turn slowly and languidly toward him, and sometimes he thought she didn't even wake up fully even when it was all over, but he didn't mind that because she was loving and willing whenever he wanted to, and he considered that all a man should want from his wife...."
Eventually a murder takes place, and Shayne's best buddy, Tim Rourke, star reporter for the Miami News, becomes involved. For several chapters, it's Rourke who carries the weight of the plot. The multiple points of view used by Halliday were a complete departure from the previous 49 Shayne novels. As Mack saw it, Rourke was not a bad substitute. The reporter ordered his breakfast from a "big-busted and big-butted" woman with a "pleasantly bovine face" - toast with globs of butter, sausage patties, three scrambled, hash browns. Everyone in the small town of Sunray is stunned that a newspaper reporter - particularly one from Miami - would even bother to talk to them. He's like a god among ants, his authority to infiltrate crime scenes unquestioned, his demands met with awe and vigor.
When Shayne finally does appear and solves the crime, Halliday takes the opportunity to remind readers why they liked Michael Shayne enough to buy more than 70 million copies of the novels. It's the early Sixties and a colored boy is blamed for the murder. He faces lynching in the Sunray jail. The sheriff and other townfolk had seen the suspect ogling the now-dead woman. And, the sheriff says, "You know how them buck niggers get when they want a piece of white stuff real bad."
By this time Shayne has elicited a confession from the real killer, but he has more pressing information for the sheriff. Coldly, he says, "I know how a lot of damn-fool southern white men think a Negro is about a white woman, but I've never encountered it personally."
Thoroughly satisfied and nearly touched, Mack Bennett closed the book, set it on the table, and rubbed his temples. He thought about Halliday. The author had been reared in Texas, and ran away at fourteen to join the army. He served two years before his true age was discovered and he was booted out. He became a vagabond, roaming the country, working odd jobs, taking a civil-engineering certificate from a school in Indiana. The Depression eliminated opportunity in the engineering field, so Halliday turned to pulp writing. He penned Westerns, romances, and, with Mum's the Word for Murder in 1938, began his career as a mystery writer. He was married three times, each time to a writer. Dividend on Death was rejected 22 times before it was published in 1939. The publisher, Henry Holt, requested a second Shayne tale, which became The Private Practice of Michael Shayne and began the most successful Miami-based detective series of all time. Publishers would continue to reissue his books well into the Eighties.
Mack drove west along 112 toward the jai-alai fronton and another meeting with The Fixer. He was sick to death of the Pink Pussycat, but at least he knew he could get a bourbon there before breaking the bad news to his employer.
"Oh, no!" The Fixer slammed his glass on the bar and reached for the Bic in his pocket.
"So you don't even know if Halliday lived in Miami at some point? And you sure as hell can't ask him."
"Listen," Mack said, growing angry. "I didn't kill the guy. I just found out when and where he died."
Mack spent two more days reading pulp novels set in Miami, before heading back to the Pussycat. The top-heavy brunette behind the bar remembered him and immediately brought over a double Jim Beam, easy ice. "Thanks," Mack said endearingly. "Have you seen my friend, the little guy with the pen?"
"Ain't seen him, hon," Big Bust answered. "He your boyfriend?"
"Worse," Mack spat. "My client."
"Jeez, sorry to hear it."
Mack paid for his drink and handed the brunette his customary five-dollar tip. That's why she'd remembered him. "Listen, handsome," she said. "My name is Paris. If I can do anything for you that your client can't...."
"Actually, Miss France," Mack responded with a grin, "there is. Could we just talk for a little while?"
"Yeah, right." She excused herself with a jiggle to tend to a couple of state attorneys at the other end of the bar.
Mack felt he was about to burst with his newfound knowledge, and he was dying to tell someone. Where the hell was The Fixer? He'd called this meeting for 10:30 and it was five past eleven. Mack pulled on his cocktail disgustedly.
If The Fixer ever did show up, or if Paris were willing to give him an ear, he was prepared to skip the part about how Sam at the library had introduced him to Becky Smith, a friendly, freckly woman with a grand sense of humor - when she had shown Mack the boxes filled with pulp novels, she'd mentioned that some of them were "choice." Mack enjoyed hearing slang from a woman whose title was Curator of Research Materials for the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.
No, Mack figured, he'd go right into the good stuff. Becky Smith had helped him uncover the roots of South Florida pulp, and Mack was surprised to learn that it predated Miami itself. Beadle's Dime Library (New York) was painting purplish portraits of gals and intrigue as far back as 1879, when Beadle's was biweekly and really cost ten cents per copy, or $2.50 per year. Included in Becky's collection was the issue The White Wizard or, The Great Prophet of the Seminoles by Ned Buntline. The definition of pulp - dialect-riddled dialogue, tough men with rough attitudes, violence to spare, and women described thusly: "She was tall, raven-haired, lovely in feature, and perfect in form."
Mack smiled again as Paris, who fit that very description, poured him another double. As she rushed off to take care of a stuck record in the jukebox, he returned to his thoughts. The scenery in The White Wizard was depressing to Mack: "Along the whole southern and western coast of Florida, from the ancient fort of St. Marks to Key West, there were no settlements..." Christ, Mack thought as he took a swig, not a condo in sight! "...and only a few Spanish fishing stations at Tampa Bay, Manitee, Boca Grande, and Sanibel, at the date when we draw the curtain of the drama, which we offer to the reader, nearly forty years ago."
Beadle's returned to the area in the summer of 1883, with Alligator Ike; or, The Secret of the Everglade by Captain Fred Whittaker. Mack's thoughts wandered to savage Seminoles, killer gators, lush tropical jungle unscathed by progress. He imagined himself walking a short distance from sandy Atlantic shores to shrouded, living Everglade. Where did the s come from, and when? Were the Injuns so bad, or did they just make for handy villains? Panthers, snakes, otters, bass as big as Buicks...and the rugged individuals who'd eventually kill off most of these beasts...the mosquitoes must have been deadly...no pavement or subdivisions or automobiles tearing down the Tamiami Trail, squashing anything unfortunate enough to cross the road.... Suddenly Mack was startled by a tap on his left shoulder. "Fix?" he said, turning around.
"How's ya doin' dere?" It was Sneaky Pittoon, a petty thug who took on dirty little jobs for The Fixer. Mack had once pummeled Sneaky at the Flagler dog track after catching the punk stealing tips from the downstairs bar.
"What the hell you want, Snake - I mean, Sneaky."
"Seen da Fixer? Owes me some cash. Shoulda been here by now. Gotta find that bastard."
Mack ignored him. He was curious about the whereabouts of Charles Phixture, but not particularly bothered by his absence. He returned to his drink and his thoughts. Caroline Washburn Rockwood had written a couple of fascinating books, In Biscayne Bay (1891) and An East Florida Romance (1897), but they were more concerned with yachts than bullets and babes. After the dime novels of the late 1800s, there seemed to be a dearth of Miami-based pulp. It wasn't until the end of 1940 that Cosmopolitan published Leslie Charteris's The Saint in Miami, a Simon Templar visit to the sunny climes. That was about the time that the great Brett Halliday and his Michael Shayne entered the game, but it wasn't until after World War II that William Lindsay Gresham chimed in with Nightmare Alley. Hell, Mack thought, no wonder Halliday chose Miami - he had a damn monopoly on South Florida pulp.
"They weren't all series like Mike Shayne, you know." Sam waved his hand over the glass case as he spoke. The cool air of the library soothed Mack's hangover.
"I know," Mack said agreeably. "But Shayne is the only one I'm familiar with." He paused and glanced down at the case stocked with paperbacks whose covers depicted enticingly clad beauties or scenes of manly violence, or both. "Oh, yeah, and there was that guy in the Eighties, um, T.J. MacGregor."
"Yes, that's correct," Sam said eruditely. "And William Fuller wrote a couple, including one entitled Miami Manhunt, published in 1958. And Gerald Green - The Lotus Eaters - and then, in the Seventies, there was Elsa Gutierrez's Operation Leprechaun and Don Pendleton's The Executioner, Miami Massacre."
"Still and all," Mack interrupted, "I think it's safe to say Halliday and his Mike Shayne dominated."
"Oh, absolutely," Sam agreed happily. "But no series came to the fore after 1980. Not at all. In the Eighties, Miami pulp novels became a growth industry. Robert Coram, Kristy Daniels, Stephen Grave, David A. Kaufelt, John Maccabee, Dick Stivers...there's quite a number of them here."
"Yeah. I guess a lot of it is how you define pulp. I mean, the dictionary just says lurid books and magazines. But you know, I think a hardboiled private dick as the protagonist is part of it, too. And a cheap price - paperbacks, of course. And the dialogue: women are gals and women's legs are gams and guns are gats. Didn't Damon Runyon base some of his stuff here, like at the horse track? And Elmore Leonard, the guy whose books make such terrible movies. He had the private eye, or investigators of some sort, and snappy dialogue, and violence. Violence is important."
"Indeed," Sam agreed. "Charles Willeford was really good. And John D. MacDonald with Travis McGee - those colorful stories usually took place around these parts."
"I'm not sure how trashy or lurid those authors were," Mack said flatly. "I mean, if you don't draw some boundaries, the list is almost endless. Hell, you've got a Miami Vice book in there, too. That drivel is beneath pulp. It's something less. I'm gaining a damn reverence for the real thing."
Sam's eyes took on an unexpected gleam. Mack was almost startled by the demonic expression, but he played it cool. "Come with me," Sam said, as if possessed by some unseen force. "I think it's time you broadened your horizons."
Sam led Mack through the Florida Room to a locked door. He twisted the key, braced the door open with his knee, and allowed Mack to pass by. "Somewhere back here," Sam said distractedly, "um, let's see, no, um, wait, here it is! Take a look at this!"
Mack couldn't believe what he was seeing. It was a book, but it wasn't a book: Murder Off Miami by Dennis Wheatley, described as a "murder mystery planned by J.G. Links." The book had a fairly normal cover, but the inside was a jumble of typewritten - not printed - pages, memorandums, a photograph of six cigarette butts, a burnt match, a clump of hair.... "The actual clues," Mack said reverentially. The book was wildly popular in the 1930s - who could resist a nonnarrative whodunit that required the reader to actually solve the crime, then check a special sealed section to find out if he was correct? Three similar "books" were published, but World War II ended the gimmick - too costly.
His writing made Carl Hiaasen seem like a decent enough guy, and Mack felt somewhat guilty about kidnapping him, especially for the sake of the pulp project. But Hiaasen had refused to meet him at the Pussycat, muttering something about feminism. So Mack had driven to One Herald Plaza, waited until Hiaasen emerged, and clumped the writer on the head with the butt end of a tarpon gaff. Hiaasen came to in the front seat of Mack's car, parked near Mashta Point, outside the fence that had gone up to seal off the prime Key Biscayne fishing spot from the public.
"You okay?" Mack asked, offering Hiaasen a pint of Jim Beam.
"What the hell happened?" Hiaasen managed weakly.
"Had to jack you one," Mack responded. "Need some info, and need it now. No time to waste. A deadline, you know."
"Christ almighty," Hiaasen muttered. "You know, I always return phone calls."
"Yeah, that's real nice of ya, but cut the crap and give me some bio on yourself before I get the gaff out of the trunk."
"Well, I was born in Fort Lauderdale, just like my father. I started in the Herald's Broward bureau in 1976 and came to Miami as a general assignment reporter. Then I was at Tropic for a couple of years, '78 and '79 I guess. After Tropic, I was on the investigations team for five years. I began writing my column for the local page in 1985."
"Congratulations," Mack said with a smirk. "But I'm interested in fiction."
"Oh," Hiaasen said. "The first fiction I wrote was in college. I ghosted a couple of novels while I was at Emory University. There was this young medical student I knew who had some ideas, anecdotes, and he wanted me to weave them into a fictional book about medical school. We did two books together, and both were published. Neither had my name on them, because, like I say, I ghosted them. One, Doc Hollywood, they're making into a movie with Michael J. Fox. I was nineteen or twenty when I wrote it. That was my first fiction."
"Go on," Mack said wearily.
"Then in 1979, when the first cocaine wars broke out and the crazies with machine guns were running around, I did a piece for Rolling Stone. A friend of mine in New York saw it and said I could write a great novel, based on this Miami shit. Bill Montalbano was my editor at the Herald at that time. It began as a lark between friends. But we sent five chapters and an outline to an agent who sold it to a publisher. We ended up doing three novels together: Powder Burn, set in Miami; Trap Line, set in Key West; and Death in China, which was set over there. Then Bill went to the L.A. Times. The books did pretty well, got good reviews, and I was ready to start out on my own."
Mack swigged at his pint. "Okay, so then came your three novels, Tourist Season, Double Whammy, and the new one, Skin Tight."
"Right," Hiaasen said. "I wanted more humor. I have a very dark view of the world and some rather burning concerns when it comes to what's happening to Florida. It's all very personal."
Mack passed the pint and Hiaasen took an appreciative swallow. He gently fingered the small lump that had risen on his skull before continuing. "There was a romantic thrill, getting that first hardbound copy. But practically, you're not really published until you hit the paperback mass-market. The people who buy books in Eckerd and Publix are the ones you want to reach."
"Damn straight," Mack interrupted. "Paperbacks are the ultimate."
"So anyway, I'm almost finished with my next one. It's set down here, too, in north Key Largo at a fictitious theme park. I had this notion: What if someone tried to do Disney World in South Florida? You know, we've lost all the family tourist business to Orlando, and we have this inferiority complex about it. So this is a cut-rate Disney World, with low hiring standards and animals that aren't quite trained. It's a murder mystery...you know, endangered species are real trendy right now. But I've been writing about that for a long time. I did a column once about portraits of Florida panthers. I saw an ad for them that left the impression the money would go to a fund. I called around and not one nickel had gone to any fund to help the panthers. I called the guy, and he says, well, there will be a fund, and a certain percentage of the profits...you know, perfect. This is Florida. It's called Native Tongue."
"Sounds great," Mack said half-heartedly. "Now, apart from having lived here all your life, what is it about South Florida that..."
"The material is so good down here," Hiaasen cut in. "What you see almost defies satire and fictionalizing. The challenge is to write fiction that surpasses the truth in South Florida. It's therapy for me. I get to write my own endings, which I can't do at the paper. Wish I could."
"I know exactly what you mean," Mack said. "I suppose we all could think of a commissioner or two we'd like to inject with potassium," he said, referring to the fate of Roberto Pepsical in Skin Tight. "And personally, I could imagine living out in Stiltsville, the way your parboiled detective, Mick Stranahan, did."
"There's no place quite like Stiltsville," Hiaasen said, pointing toward it from their spot at Mashta. "In the early morning, the houses rising out of the fog, and the characters out there.... Not to get terribly metaphorical, but this is the paradox of this tropical, unique place where Mick lived and there's this metropolis so close. Manatees, turtles, porpoises - a real tropical paradise, and humanity encroaching on it. This overpowering natural beauty you can't find anywhere else and a mass of urban glob behind it. You look to the east and you could be in the middle of the Caribbean, and you turn back and there's Mount Trashmore - now that was a great idea...Jesus Christ."
"You don't have to tell me," Mack pointed out. "I remember when the Everglades began around 107th Avenue and you could eat the bass instead of using them to make thermometers." Mack took another taste of the Jim Beam and passed the bottle.
"It's sort of universal," Hiaasen said, wiping his chin with the back of his hand. "I think there are some themes anyone can identify with, at least judging from the letters I get about my books. The place you grew up, you remember it a certain way, and then having it paved over...the sandlot where you played baseball, you come home, and there's a K-mart there. It hits a nerve."
A minivan full of pink tourists pulled up behind Mack's car and honked the horn sharply five times. For a moment, Mack thought Hiaasen was going to make a run for it, but when he didn't, Mack stepped out, opened his trunk, removed the gaff, and walked earnestly toward the van. The tourist daddy slammed into reverse and hauled ass.
Hiaasen was staring at the gaff. "I have one just like that. Except I use the sharp end."
"Do much fishing?" Mack was relaxed now.
"Not as much as I should. I go for bones, tarpon, permit. I grew up bass fishing. It's too dangerous now, not from the gators, from the maniacs. A lot of my friends are salt-water guides and professional fishermen. They're not politically active, but they sure appreciate what nature has given us. Imagine Soldier Key developed and 350 tourists splashing around in the water. I asked a bonefish guide, you know, if you chummed up with barracuda strips...there's bull sharks around here, right? Yeah, and lemons and duskies and blacktips. And they'd all come in to feed, right? That could happen, I suppose."
Mack was beginning to like Carl Hiaasen. "Go on, Carl."
"That's why I write about the Keys so much. If we manage to fuck up the Keys, if we manage to blow that one, then we have no prayer of saving the rest of this place. Who wants to pay good money to look at condos and shopping centers and get run over by a water bike?" Suddenly Hiaasen turned to face Mack. "Hey, by the way, what the hell is this all about?"
"The history of South Florida told by pulp fiction writers," Mack explained. "I'm trying to get to the bottom of it."
"I don't consider what I do pulp," Hiaasen said without sounding defensive. "They're not traditional thrillers because you know whodunit by page 90. They're more whydunit. There's more sarcasm and humor. You don't have a guy with a Weed Whacker for an arm in traditional pulp. Someone called them `eco-thrillers.' I think that's a bit on the lofty side. The truth is I can't escape from something that's important to me. This is a society that finds corruption not all that surprising, or even appalling. So I use lampooning and outright ridicule. It feels good to write it."
"As long as you feel good," Mack said with resignation. "Personally, I've got a headache a mile wide." He polished off the pint and stuck the empty bottle under the front seat. Better to get busted for an open container, Mack figured, than to pitch it out the window.
"I can't believe you'd come in here at a time like this!" Paris looked genuinely shocked.
"Why not?" Mack answered. "You pour a mean bourbon. And apart from the swelling in your chest, you're a very attractive young woman."
"Thanks," she said, pouring Jim Beam into a tumbler with a small amount of ice. "But, um, after what happened to your little friend...."
Mack choked on his bourbon and gestured for another. The Fixer dead. Christ, Mack thought, perfect timing. I finally have something to give him, some real answers, and the son of a bitch goes and gets himself murdered.
The Fixer would never know that the key was 1939, the year the Mike Shayne series began. In that year, in Miami, the reality was twice as weird as Halliday's fiction. On December 12, 60 felony cases were disposed of in a single day by Judge Ben C. Willard, including the manslaughter charges against a man accused of punching a woman dead in front of a fish market. A few days later, 39 less fortunate suspects in various crimes were transported from county jail to state prison - the largest number of prisoners moved at once in Miami history. In another case, a woman's slacks were stolen from a clothesline and the cops found another woman walking around wearing the hot pants. Then there was the man riding atop a stack of furniture on a truck. He was sitting backward and never saw the traffic beacon that crushed his skull when the truck drove beneath it.
"One more double," Mack said hazily. Paris brought the drink.
Yes, Mack thought to himself, things had changed, but things were still the same. Miami in 1939 was a lot like Miami in 1991. There was a baby girl, eleven months old, riding in a car that hit a fire truck. No one could find the little girl. Turns out she'd rolled from the car into a storm sewer and drowned. And there was another kid who fell out of a car. He was okay, but his grandmother, a passenger, had a heart attack. And fake lottery tickets on foreign sweepstakes were being circulated around town.
The Jim Beam was beginning to blur Mack's vision, and his thoughts drifted from reality to fiction, fiction to reality, all of it mixing together in a dizzying haze. Mike Shayne was guarding a warehouse in Miami. There had been a series of break-ins, each taking place during nasty weather, and with a tropical storm approaching the South Florida shores, Shayne was prepared. When an intruder appears, Mike guns him down, creating "a shapeless heap of lifeless flesh." Mack Bennett rolled that phrase around with his bourbon.
And what was that other one? Oh yeah - "hungry as a bitch wolf suckling sixteen pups." Beautiful. But there were flaws in Halliday. A Miami Beach cop named Jim Hogan suddenly becomes Joe Hogan on page 32 of A Redhead for Mike Shayne. And Shayne only carries his .38 sometimes, like when the plot calls for him to shoot somebody. And Mack was unsettled by the attribution on one bit of dialogue: "`Come again,' he ejaculated."
But Shayne knew how to get from the far western outskirts of Dade County - around Red Road at the time, Mack figured - to Key Largo. He took the "Palmetto Speedway" to "Highway Number One." Tidbits like that were so much niftier than drivelly insight into romantic characters, like in Michael Shayne's 50th Case, where several chapters are wasted showing true love, love the patient reader well knows will be torn asunder by blunder or bullet. (Or, in this case, asphyxiation.)
Still, any Shayne, with its intimate knowledge of Miami, was preferable to John Creasey, a British pulp writer whose protagonist, Superintendent Roger West of Scotland Yard, came to South Florida in the Sixties with Murder, London - Miami. The Brits in the novel are stunned when the prime suspect flees to...Miami.
When the heroine, Henrietta, arrives from England, Creasey writes, "Henrietta found herself in a steam bath. The sun was blazing, the sky a beautiful blue - it was so hot she caught her breath." What literary insight, Mack thought.
A couple of compelling moments are provided by a character named Chloe: "Folks say a lot about Miami Beach which isn't in its favor, but, gee, it's beautiful. It's just about the most beautiful city in the world." Mack looked up at the dame dancing on-stage and wondered who'd stuck that pen up The Fixer's nose. Probably that lawyer who had once fallen victim to The Fixer's writing instrument of choice. Sure, Mack thought, must've been the lawyer.
Suddenly Mack felt himself being pulled up and backward and he wasn't sure if he was about to pass out from the booze. He heard the click of handcuffs, and realized it was his own hands that were being cuffed. He felt something hard smash against his skull and he faded to black.
He came to in City of Miami police headquarters downtown. A burly man in a bad suit stood before him, a young Cuban in a dark blue uniform sat in a chair against one wall. The man in the suit spoke first.
"You're under arrest for the murder of Charles Edward Phixture III. First-degree homicide, pal. You wanna tell me something?"
"C-could I, um, have a cup o' coffee and a smoke?"
"Sure, sure," Bad Suit said. "Hey, Jose, get this killer some java and a fag."
Oh, no, Mack thought. Do they really talk like this? "Thank you," he said to Jose. "Okay, gentlemen, here's the scoop. Phixture came to me a few weeks ago, wanting to find out the history of Miami. How it went from endlessly pristine ecological utopia to the most chaotic hub in the western world. And he wanted me to do it through pulp novels set here. The case was going along pretty good, and I met with him a couple times at the Pussycat to give him updates. This stuff is really fascinating, the way they describe bits and pieces of Miami, the way this city's whole image changes in the pages of fiction without really changing at all...."
The detective in the suit was about to interrupt, when another man in uniform burst into the interrogation room. "Captain, I need to see you outside for a moment. It's urgent."
The two men excused themselves. Jose walked to where Mack was sitting, still handcuffed, and knocked the cup of hot coffee into Mack's lap.
"Why'd you do it, asshole?"
"Didn't," Mack managed.
"No way, Jose."
The two cops returned. "Take the cuffs off, Jose," Bad Suit said. "Mr. Bennett, come with me. There are a couple of people here to see you."
They all walked into the lobby, where Sam and Becky stood with worried expressions.
"Gee, Mack, you look terrible," Sam offered honestly.
"Thanks," Mack said. "Somebody mind telling me what the hell's going on here?" He caught something out of the corner of his eye. Sneaky Pittoon, sitting in a straight-back chair with his hands in cuffs and a dejected look on his ugly mug.
Mack pointed at Sneaky. "Him?"
"Yes," Becky said fondly. "We found him in the Florida Room. He'd torn into the glass case with the Miami pulp display. Tawdry paperbacks were all over the place. When Sam tried to stop the maniac, he got himself punched in the nose instead."
"When the cops finally showed up," Sam interjected, "the gentleman was ranting about $500 someone owed him - that he thought it might be hidden in a pulp novel. Have you ever heard of such a thing?"
"Being owed $500? Yeah, I've heard of it," Mack said bemusedly. "I can't believe Sneaky would kill for a few hundred smackers. There were so many other, better reasons."
"Well, he's made a full confession. And one more thing," Sam added. "I found out about Brett Halliday. He lived in Miami from 1930 to 1935, and then visited over the years."
"Thanks, Sam." Mack meant it, but he didn't sound sincere. After all, what did it matter now? Hell, the case was over. He wouldn't have to read any more pulp, he wouldn't have to ponder Miami's predicament. It had been good for a few laughs, the library was a great place, and Sam and Becky were heroes in his book. Still he was left feeling empty.
He was thirsty, he thought. Maybe a bourbon would hit the spot. Yes, Mack thought gratefully, he'd always have Paris.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Jeb Bush on Oregon Shooting: "Stuff Happens"
Sat., Oct. 17, 12:00am
Sat., Oct. 17, 10:00am
Sat., Oct. 17, 11:00am
Sat., Oct. 17, 6:00pm
- Moshe Mana Plans Development for Wynwood With 24-Story Towers and Convention Center
- Interactive Map Reminds Us Florida Has Always Been a Land of Caribbean Immigrants