Tropical books to offset a winter’s chill
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?