KEY WEST BY THE BOOK
By Carol Shaughnessy Florida Keys News Bureau
From a literary standpoint, Key West is best known as the one-time home of Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway and the place where Robert Frost wintered for some 15 years. However, the island's almost mystical attraction for authors and aspiring authors extends far beyond these three legendary "writers in residence."
In recent years, Key West's literary coterie has included such notables as John Hersey, Elizabeth Bishop, Shel Silverstein, Richard Wilbur, Alison Lurie, Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Judy Blume, Nancy Friday, Ann Beattie and Philip Caputo.
Yet for many writers, the island is not just a home or retreat. It's a setting and a subject for volumes of both fiction and nonfiction. They're everywhere: Key West history books, cookbooks and affectionate descriptions of the island and life among its inhabitants. The best include June Keith's "Postcards from Paradise" and "A Key West Companion" by Christopher Cox.
In fact, Key West has been romanticized, downgraded, glorified and libeled by authors (sometimes all in the same book).
Perhaps because of its quirky, renegade nature, the island seems particularly successful as the setting for contemporary mysteries - written by people who know it well enough to portray it ruefully, humorously, lovingly and so accurately that readers can almost feel the humidity and smell the salt air.
Tom Corcoran debuted his Key West series in 1998 with "The Mango Opera." He has followed it with several other volumes, including 2005's "Air Dance Iguana," detailing the adventures of freelance photographer Alex Rutledge.
A Key West resident in the late 1970s, Corcoran was a photographer, disc jockey and close friend of the island's renowned "pirate laureate," singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. His books draw on his memories of that era as well as the southernmost city's contemporary flavors. The people Alex meets, befriends and occasionally suspects of crimes are inspired by the flawed, intriguing individuals who walk the streets today.
Equally intriguing are the books of John Leslie, featuring Key West private investigator and piano player Gideon Lowry.
Shipwreck salvagers, Hemingway aficionados, greedy developers and celebrity tourists are just a few of the characters that enliven Gideon's days. Melancholy rhythms and romantic misfortunes permeate his life, and he's seen more than his share of violence. His exploits are depicted in books including "Night and Day" and "Killing Me Softly."
The latest talented entrant into the Key West mystery realm is Michael Haskins, whose background includes extensive television work in Los Angeles and stints as a freelance press photographer and journalist.
Haskins' crime thriller "Chasin' the Wind," starring journalist Liam Michael "Mad Mick" Murphy, was published in March 2008 and has earned excellent reviews. It's a spicy conch chowder flavored with dashes of small-town politics, Cuban intrigue, neurotic federales and island attitude.
"I created Mick Murphy on a jogging track to keep my mind off my sore legs and burning lungs," said Haskins. "I gave him my final two vices - Irish whiskey and cigars - and I gave him red hair because I wanted him to be Irish, and nothing says Irish like red hair."
Haskins, who settled in Key West in the early 1990s, had his first island-city crime story published in the prestigious "Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine." He's also penned earlier Mick Murphy manuscripts, set in other locales, that remain unpublished. When he relocated his protagonist to Key West, however, all the elements clicked.
"I made Key West a character in the story," Haskins said. "I used the street names, the pubs' names, individuals' names that can't sue me.
Haskins attributes part of his book's success to three elements: keeping chapters short to fit the attention span of today's readers, ending chapters with a question to entice them to turn the page and making Mick a likeable and reality-based character - someone readers might enjoy meeting for a casual drink or two.
"I thought there were too many characters out there who were superhuman," said Haskins, who recently completed the book's sequel. "When Mick makes a decision, I would hope that people would say they'd do the same thing."
In a nod to friend and mentor Tom Corcoran, Haskins even has Murphy read Corcoran's "Air Dance Iguana," creating a situation that could only happen in a novel - the protagonist of a mystery based in Key West reading a mystery based in Key West.
As both an authors' haven and a favorite setting, the island has earned an indelible place in the literary world. Its accepting lifestyle and undemanding pace seemingly leave plenty of room for the creative consciousness to roam.
"If you come here to write or paint or be a photographer and you let yourself do what you want, then you're going to do well down here," said Haskins. "Key West - the island, the city, the atmosphere - is a muse."
To read the initial chapters of Haskins' "Chasin' the Wind," visit www.michaelhaskins.net.