When readers first meet Pete Fernandez, the detective at the center of Alex Segura’s mystery novels, he is a broken man. He works as a journalist in Miami, but he’s lost his passion; he’s lost his girlfriend because he’s a jerk; and he’s a raging alcoholic who has used up the last nerve of his friends and co-workers. He’s not an easy guy to love, yet he exemplifies the saying of Bodhidharma that a person who falls down seven times must pick themselves up eight times. Pete falls plenty, and his saga offers a more realistic portrayal of addiction and its cycles than the “one visit to a meeting and you’re cured” version often displayed in film.
For Alex Segura, Pete Fernandez is only one of the manifestations of his creativity. A trip to his website reveals that Segura, who'll be in attendance at 2019's Miami Book Fair, creates comic books and covers a multitude of topics in his blog, podcast, and newsletter.
Music is one passion that Segura and his fictional detective share, and the author's championing of Miami's sound is purposeful. “I wanted to show that Pete was a fan,” he says. “Music played a part in his everyday life, as it does for me and many people I know. I also feel like Miami, at least when I started writing these books, got a bad rap as not being a 'hip' or essential music spot, when it was really varied and diverse when I lived there and continues to be interesting and vibrant.”
In the newest of the Pete Fernandez mysteries, Miami Midnight, Segura explores the history of jazz music in Miami. He's hoping that people will listen to some of the sounds he had in mind while writing.
“I think about music a lot while writing, and create, long detailed playlists of songs that accompany the books,” Segura says. “They’re all based on music and bands and songs I experienced while living in Miami, to keep me grounded in that space as I write.”
Segura is a Miami native who currently lives in New York City with his wife and son. The character of Pete Fernandez is one of the first Cuban-American detectives to feature in a mystery series. That choice of protagonist was an intentional one by Segura.
“I think Cuban-Americans have a strong sense of displacement, or of another, different world across the Florida Straits — a sense of lost history or disconnectedness,” he says. “I try to reflect that in Pete, and I try to give him a strong sense of history, with his family, his city and what came before. He feels the weight of his past very heavily — whether it's his father, who was a homicide detective in Miami, or further back like his grandfather, who was an officer in the Batista administration in Cuba.”
Segura thought a lot about just how to write about Cuba without alienating those unfamiliar with its resonances in the lives of many Miami residents. “When I created Pete, I wanted the culture of Cuba, of Miami to be front and center, but not hit people over the head,” Segura says. “It's who he is, and you get to experience that as you go, but I didn't want it presented in a ham-fisted way. For people who're familiar with that world, it's a nice reminder that someone like us is out there, in this fictional landscape, representing Miami and Cuba. For those who might not know what it's like to live in Miami, or Cuban-American culture, it brings them in and shows them that it's probably a lot like what they experience themselves in their own world.”
In the first of the Pete Fernandez mysteries, Silent City, Fernandez is not a detective. In fact, because his father had been a long-time detective with the local force, he deliberately sought a career that wouldn’t have him following his father’s footsteps. But as Fernandez's self-destructive drinking reaches its height and he discovers a fat file on an old crime and a service revolver among his recently deceased father’s belongings, he changes his mind and decides to pick up his father’s mantle.
Segura says because a good investigative reporter and a detective share many common traits, Fernandez's character arc and progression was a logical one.
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“I think making Pete a journalist first made it easier for him to evolve into becoming a PI, because the instinct is there,” Segura says, adding his hero is motivated largely by curiosity. “Pete wants to discover the truth. The big difference is news journalism is about revealing the unfiltered truth, showing the reader what's going on and letting them decide what it is. For a PI, it's about having a cause or vendetta — you need to find something out and then intercede. So with Silent City, the first Pete novel, I needed to not only present Pete as he was falling out of journalism, but also give him a case/cause that would spur him into wanting to become the story versus just telling it.”
As Fernandez follows his father’s trail of breadcrumbs, he becomes aware that the man his father had hunted, a contract killer known as “the Silent Death,” may have played a significant role in the disappearance of a co-worker’s daughter. What begins as a favor for a friend turns into a career choice, as Pete begins to understand that detective work and journalism share a basic belief in getting the facts right. And, like his fictional creation, Alex Segura uses his work — whether it be comic books, podcasts, or novels — to uncover the truths of the human condition.
Miami Midnight, by Alex Segura. Polis Books; August 2019. $26. 336 pages.
Miami Book Fair 2019: Florida Mystery and Suspense. With Alex Segura, James, Grippando, and Tim Dorsey. 4 p.m. Sunday, November 24, at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami; miamibookfair.com. Admission is free.