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Tropical books to offset a winter’s chill

February 1, 2010

Fort Lauderdale beach

A friend wrote yesterday to request “a list of books set in hot climates to help warm some of us living too far north.”  I’m happy to oblige. Lucy resides in North Carolina — no one’s usual idea of “too far north” — so I can only imagine the meteorological miseries of those poor souls in the Northeast or the Midwest.

I may need some help, though. It’s raining and cool for the second day here in Fort Lauderdale — Sunday passed in a twilight that never quite qualified as daytime. My brain’s a little sluggish (or more sluggish than usual). So please tell me some of your favorite tropical novels.

The first writer who comes to mind is Graham Greene, the British literary novelist and thriller writer who famously wrote of “dark deeds in sunny climes.”  Long a fave of mine, Greene set many books in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, but in honor of the recent tragedy in Haiti, I’ll mention one of the very best, The Comedians. Oh, and his comic novel, Our Man in Havana. Excellent, both.

Other hot-clime literary novels to consider: Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s lovely, tragic prequel to Jane Eyre that tells the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, a white Jamaican creole. Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, set in Key West, is wildly uneven, but if you only read the “Have-Not” parts it’s a fine book.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, set in pioneering Central Florida, is a novel that can be loved equally by children and grown-ups. Another YA classic is Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, about a racist 11-year-old boy bonding with an elderly West Indian after both are shipwrecked in the Caribbean. A third: E.L. Konigsberg’s The View from Saturday.

Joseph Conrad, a retired sea captain, set many books and stories in the tropics. One of my favorites: Almayer’s Folly, the story of a Dutch trader coming to a bad end in Borneo. Any number of other literary writers have written tropical novels: Peter Matthiessen (At Play in the Fields of the Lord; Shadow Country), Thomas McGuane (92 in the Shade), Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast), Edwidge Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory), William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach), Thomas Sanchez (Mile Zero).

Lucy mentions she’s just finished a book by Miami crime novelist James W. Hall, which makes me suspect she’s more interested in good quality entertainments than literary uplift. Of these there is no end. John D. MacDonald virtually invented the Florida thriller, most famously in his Fort Lauderdale-based Travis McGee series. Ian Fleming loved the Caribbean and set all or parts of several James Bond adventures there. In the early 1980s, Elmore Leonard shifted his focus from Detroit to South Florida for an impressive number of first-rate crime novels (Stick, Rum Punch, Out of Sight — just a beginning).

Since then, Florida has come to rival L.A. as a center of cool-hot crime fiction. Just a few writers to consider: Carl Hiassen (Tourist Season), James W. Hall (Under Cover of Daylight), Randy Wayne White (Sanibel Flats), Christine Kling (Bitter End), Dave Barry (Tricky Business), James Grippando (Intent to Kill), Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), the late, great, unsurpassable Charles Willeford (Miami Blues and many others).

I can’t close without mentioning  horror maestro Stephen King’s only Florida novel, Duma Key, which is among his best.

I’ve left out many great books and writers. Which ones do you think Lucy should read?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2010 1:14 pm

    I’m such a cliche Florida girl writer, but The Yearling was a huge book for me. Thanks for the reminder. It’s time for a reread…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 1, 2010 1:29 pm

      Kristy Kiernan, obviously raised right by God-fearing parents, is too modest to mention her own Florida-set novels, Catching Genius, Matters of Faith, and the forthcoming Between Friends. Of Catching Genius, Publishers Weekly said: “The thoughtful themes, interesting characters and page-turning drama of this novel will likely make it a book club favorite.” Not shabby, and worth a look.

  2. February 1, 2010 1:20 pm

    Hey thanks for the To Have and Have Not shoutout — as it happens we’re making that book the focus of the Key West Library’s first ever “big read” type event. We’re calling it One Island One Book and we chose that title for obvious reasons (it’s Key West, it’s a Depression, etc. etc.). And the Hemingway House will be made a Literary Landmark which, for some reason, it is not (there are seven in Key West already — whatever your opinion of Hemingway, his house here certainly qualifies as much as say, Truman’s Little White House because he wrote a lot of letters). Anyway, I’m looking forward to rereading it; I hope others are, too. And if you happen to be in Key West during the first two weeks of January, stop by the library and see what’s going on.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 1, 2010 1:35 pm

      Nan, always great to hear from the Conch Republic. I think TH&HN is one of Papa’s most underrated novels — if, as I say, you ignore the draggy TH parts about rich and boring people. The other half of the book, focusing on poor Conchs trying to survive the Depression, contain some of his best writing. It’s also the closest Hemingway ever came to writing an out-and-out thriller. When’s your Big-Read type event? I might have more to say about this book then.

  3. alexis permalink
    February 1, 2010 4:22 pm

    Can reading about a warm place make you warmer? If so, I guess I should start reading Hell when I get home instead of turning on the space heater…

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 1, 2010 5:26 pm

      You will enjoy Helll whether it warms you up or not…

  4. rachel permalink
    February 1, 2010 4:59 pm

    Alexis: it’s not cold enough for the space heater!

    Chauncey, I really like, as you mentioned, “Wide Sargasso Sea.” And it’s strange to hear myself say these words about a book by Stephen King, but “Duma Key” is one of the best books I have ever read. And it really is very Florida.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 1, 2010 5:27 pm

      Two excellent tropical books, very different in character. But don’t you have any selections to offer?

    • alexis permalink
      February 3, 2010 10:17 am

      I know I know. Just trying to be funny.

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 1, 2010 5:35 pm

    You want hot? How about Dante’s “Inferno”?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 1, 2010 5:58 pm

      I think that may be too much of a good thing, but let me ask: Which ring?

      • Candice Simmons permalink
        February 2, 2010 12:23 pm

        The final one–where Satan is chewing you up and spitting you out.

  6. Tommy permalink
    February 1, 2010 5:54 pm

    The sci-fi nutter in me has to throw in “The Invention of Morel” by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

    I thought hell was supposed to be cold.

    Yes, Alexis read “Hell” it is nice and warm on the corner of Peachtree Lane and Lucky Boulevard.

    I spent this last cold snap reading H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Mountains of Madness” which takes place in Antarctica and felt warm compared to those poor devils. So maybe Lynn needs to read more tales about people who are really cold.

    Morel’s Invention came to me by way of my favorite place to visit. An island which is quite balmy, mysterious, haunted and difficult to find.

    Tomorrow night!!!11111

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 1, 2010 6:03 pm

      Well, if we want to go in the other direction, I suggest Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, a curiousl fantasia about an expedition to Antarctica (or the inner reaches of Poe’s soul), or Andrea Barrett’s superb The Voyage of the Narwhale, a realistic novel about an Arctic explorer, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica, a sci-fi novel with such credible hard science you’ll think you’re reading a nonfiction book from about 10 years in the future

  7. Tommy permalink
    February 1, 2010 5:58 pm

    *Lucy* not Lynn, who’s Lynn? a new character?

    Let me get back to my Trigonometry textbook which always gives me the shivers.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 1, 2010 6:03 pm

      I figured you were just making it up as you went along.

  8. Dan Norman permalink
    February 2, 2010 5:27 pm

    Well, Mabe Man, if your friend likes mystery novels, she could try “The Little Death,” by P. J. Parrish. It will be in stores the second week of this month. It is set in the city of Palm Beach. For the unitiated, Parrish’s books feature bi-racial detective Louis Kincaid. Parrish has won several major msytery writing awards and she has been nominated for an Edgar. Her books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and have been on both the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists. This will be the 10th in the series. The other ones set in Florida are: Paint It Black, Thicker Than Water, Island of Bones and A Killing Rain.

    Parrish heard me making plans to have lunch with you and she said she will try hard to get over the disappointment of not being mentioned in your blog!

    Ta Ta, dude.

    Dan Norman

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 3, 2010 4:35 pm

      Please explain to Parrish that I write this blog first thing in the morning, and occasionally forget important aspects of a subject, like mentioning all the writers I admire. So consider her included.

      I also left out (slapping foreheard) Nick Stone, a British thriller writer whose books feature the Miami ex-cop tough guy Max Mingus. His two books, widely and well review, are Mr. Clarinet and King of Swords.

  9. Evy permalink
    January 26, 2011 11:26 am

    I stongly second Graham Green and would add A Burnt Out Case and The Power and the Glory, also The Herat of the Matter.
    Somerset Maugham has written many great tropical stories. Also Island In the Sun and Hot Countries by Alec Waugh, Mosquito Coat, A Passage to India by Forester.

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