When it comes to Miami, there’s something which sets the mind to imagining. Maybe it’s the sun, maybe it’s the beautiful people, or the classic architecture in the Art Deco District. Maybe it’s the city’s reputation as ground zero for the cocaine explosion of the 1980s. Certainly I’ve never gotten completely out of Miami, though my Miami is a touch more unreal than the city as it truly is. I blame Miami Vice (link), my favorite television show, which went out of its way to create a strange and beautiful, yet menacing, vision of Miami that changed visual storytelling forever.
Make Them Sorry (link) owes a massive debt to Miami Vice, and includes a number of easter eggs for those who like hunting for such things. A significant location in the novel is located and described as it exists today, but made its debut in the episode, “Little Miss Dangerous.”
But what about books? We’re not here to talk about television, though I could write about Miami Vice until your eyeballs glaze over.
If you’re looking for Miami on the page, start with Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues (link). Willeford was a giant in the crime genre, and Miami Blues is the book that truly broke him into the mainstream. It came out in 1984 and is funny, violent and touching by turns. A series of novels starring its protagonist, Hoke Mosely, ensued. Sadly, Willeford died in 1988 before the violent, crazy days of the “cocaine cowboys” were over, or all his stories told. I’m on book three of the Camaro Espinoza (link) series, and Willeford managed four Mosely books. I hope this isn’t a warning sign.
Shift gears (but not too far) into Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch (link). Leonard knew Florida, and his Miami is terrific. His depiction of West Palm Beach, which is part of Miami metro, is spot-on. The story’s no slouch, either, as airline attendant Jackie Burke gets pulled into an operation to take down a small-time “crime boss”. The book is full of Leonard’s trademark dialogue and clever plotting. Not one to be missed.
Incidentally, Miami Blues and Rum Punch were both made into fantastic movies. The former stars the immortal Fred Ward as Hoke Mosely, and a young Alec Baldwin as a clueless ex-con. The latter novel was adapted as Jackie Brown (link), and had the added element of blaxploitation, which enriches the experience even more. Check them both out.
Arthur Hailey was known for doorstop novels with tons of research and procedural detail. You might know him from Airport (link) and Hotel (link). His last book was Detective (link), a serial-killer novel set in Miami. As you might imagine, the thing is massive, but you will still find it a compelling read. I can think of no other author who was able to marry pulpy goings-on with intricate real-life detail the way Hailey could.
While it’s much different to the rest of these books, you should move on to Joan Didion’s Miami (link). Released in the ‘80s, when much of the best Miami material — filmed or written, as the case may be — was created, Miami focuses largely on the Cuban exile community, and was a strong influence on The Night Charter (link), the first Camaro Espinoza novel. It is engrossing stuff, and well worth your time, even if it’s described as Didion’s darkest book. You don’t mind a little darkness, do you?
One of the things about Miami is that while it has its own homegrown madness, like all of Florida, it has imported some of its craziest stories, from the aforementioned Cuban exiles plotting the assassination of Fidel Castro in the ‘60s, to the Colombians who hit the city like a bloody hurricane in the ‘80s. Movies like Scarface (link) have expertly captured just how insane the criminal scene in Miami was back in the day. But it’s important to remember that Miami has always been sun-washed and exotic, and even the famed Simon Templar couldn’t stay away. In The Saint in Miami (link), he gave us Miami in the ‘40s with all the same elements we’d expect in a novel written in the last thirty years. And it has Nazis! Real ones, not the kind waving signs around these days, though they’re still okay to punch.
Start with these books, and then set out into the larger world of Miami fiction. There’s quite a bit out there, and you’re not likely to run out of books or short stories or movies or TV anytime soon. I’ll see you on Ocean Drive.