When someone thinks noir or hardboiled fiction, cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles typically come to mind immediately. But great crime stories aren’t limited to those locales. In fact, there’s a plethora of great pulp fiction in the Sunshine State. From PIs to nosy journalists, Florida’s a hotbed of not only killer crime stories, but really compelling protagonists. Maybe I’m biased, being a Miami native and the author of my own South Florida crime series. But who isn’t? Here’s a list of tropical true detective beach reads that’ll get you through the spring, summer, and beyond.
1. John D. MacDonald’s "Travis McGee"
Neither a cop nor a PI, Travis McGee makes a living recovering lost stuff for clients for a sizable fee. McGee, a Florida Keys native, lives on The Busted Flush, a boat he won in a poker game and that he keeps docked in a Fort Lauderdale marina. The somewhat jaded McGee isn’t a young buck, but he’s no slouch either. An ex-military man with t’ai chi martial arts skills and a sharp mind, the self-proclaimed “salvage consultant” stars in 21 novels and is considered by many to be the first of the great Florida crime novel heroes.
The first book in the Travis McGee series is 1964’s The Deep Blue Good-by.
2. James W. Hall’s "Thorn"
James W. Hall, author of 19 novels, winner of the Edgar and Shamus Awards, and founder of Florida International University’s highly-regarded creative writing program, is probably best known for his Thorn novels, which star the Florida Keys-based private detective with no first name. Hall’s haunted protagonist stars in 14 exotic adventures—from the must-read Under Cover of Daylight, which features Thorn hunting down the murderer of his foster mother to the most recent, The Big Finish—that explore every dark and sunlit corner of the detective’s Key Largo home and beyond. The series owes a lot to the McGee books while also covering new ground, and the off-the-grid Thorn makes for an unforgettable hero.
3. Charles Willeford’s "Hoke Moseley"
Broke, depressed, and perpetually down on his luck: that’s a quick and easy way to describe Hoke Moseley, the rule-breaking Miami cop who stars in Charles Willeford’s masterful, unsentimental series of four novels that kick off with the classic Miami Blues. Willeford has a daunting and acclaimed body of work, but many point to his Moseley books as some of his best output, which showcase the deadly, strange, and surprising characters that litter the Miami map.
4. Edna Buchanan’s "Britt Montero"
Edna Buchanan is a legendary Miami journalist who spent decades on the crime beat for The Miami Herald, culminating in the true crime classic The Corpse Had A Familiar Face. Her fiction packs as much punch as her reportage, especially the series that makes up the bulk of her novels, starring Miami reporter Britt Montero. Like the writer who created her, Montero lives and breathes her beat—fueled by an insatiable curiosity that puts her in precarious situations all over Miami. Police corruption, serial killers, hurricanes, and crimes of passion are just some of the things that Montero faces off against in her quest to get to the bottom of the story. Her diligence and nose for the truth make her adventures impossible to put down.
The first book in the Britt Montero series is 1992’s Contents Under Pressure.
5. Vicki Hendricks’s "Sherry Parlay"
Oh, Sherry Parlay. What more can be said about Vicki Hendricks’s neo-noir classic, Miami Purity? No novel expresses the sweat-soaked, tense, and sultry vibe of the city more than this one, and it owes a lot of its acclaim and success to Parlay—an on-the-run stripper-turned-laundry worker. An inverted, feminist take on James M. Cain’s pulp classic The Postman Always Rings Twice, Miami Purity sees Parlay trying to make the best of her life after a series of bad turns, only to stumble into a dangerous relationship at her new job. Sexy, smart, sharp-tongued, and unfiltered, Parlay stands out as one of the most memorable characters in modern crime fiction.
6. Elmore Leonard’s "Jackie Burke"
Crime fiction fans know that before Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, there was Jackie Burke. Unlike the movie adaptation, the book, Rum Punch, takes place in West Palm Beach, Florida—but the character of Burke remains as (if not more) vibrant and savvy as Pam Grier’s stellar screen turn. Burke is a money-smuggling flight attendant who finds herself cornered on all sides—by her bosses, the FBI, and a local bail bondsman. Burke uses her smarts and double-cross skills to survive, and in typical Elmore Leonard style, it’s an absolute joy to read.
Jackie Burke appeared in 1992’s Rum Punch.
7. Les Standiford’s "John Deal"
John Deal doesn’t want any trouble. But for whatever reason, it seems to find him. A reluctant detective, Les Standiford’s series star is actually a Miami building contractor by day, but finds himself ensnared by the city’s tentacles on a regular basis. Whether it’s murder, backroom deals, or a political kidnapping, Deal has done it all in his eight-book series, and his unforgettable adventures prove to be fast-paced and engaging.
The first book in the John Deal series is 2002’s Done Deal.
8. Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s "Lupe Solano"
Private eye Lupe Solano is a self-proclaimed “Cuban-American princess” from a wealthy and prominent Miami family. But don’t let the princess tag fool you—Solano is a tough investigator who is unafraid to wander the seedier side of Miami. The Solano mysteries not only give readers an educational crash course in Miami and Cuban culture, but also present the work of Solano from an informed perspective, as Carolina Garcia-Aguilera is a private eye herself. Gritty, spicy, sexy, and devoted to her friends and family, Solano thrives as a character and gives readers a tour of the vivid Miami landscape in a way only Garcia-Aguilera can describe.
The first book in the Lupe Solano series is 1996’s Bloody Waters.