Adam Gopnik on Florida Crime Fiction

Illustration by Leslie Herman, The New Yorker

When I was growing up, my folks subscribed to two magazines—Time for my dad and The New Yorker for my mom. Once I headed off to college, I continued to get The New Yorker and have subscribed ever since. I figure that’s over two thousand issues full of leading-edge journalism, humor, fiction, criticism, poetry, essays, and those peerless cartoons. I’ll be the first to confess I don’t read everything. It would be akin to a part-time job. What I do is cherry-pick my New Yorker reads, then stack up old issues for a later look-see.

I was just going through a stack of them—headed for the recycling bin—when I ran across Adam Gopnik’s June 2013 essay “In the Back Cabana,” in which the jack-of-all-trades essayist/critic tackles the subject of Florida crime fiction. JDM figures in the essay as a kind of granddaddy of the genre, in the form of the McGee adventures. Gopnik doesn’t address JDM’s earlier one-off Florida crime novels, nor Brett Halliday/Davis Dresser’s Michael Shayne. His main focus is Karl Hiaasen, whose Bad Monkey had just come out.

Adam Gopnik

Gopnik lays out the lineage of Florida crime fiction by first going back to the progenitors and masters of California noir—Hammett, Cain, Chandler and Ross MacDonald. His thesis is that California noir was all about the corrupt connections between the players in the story, from hookers and lowlifes to the millionaires and corporations at the top of the food chain. The sleuth uncovers these webs, usually with some shameful sexual element, and shines the light on them.

In contrast, Florida crime fiction of recent decades, he writes, is more about the unlucky coincidences that bring together the good guys and the bad. That certainly describes Hiaasen—where virtually every character, if they didn’t have bad luck, would have no luck at all. And sexual hi-jinks are not shameful or extortion-worthy. Not a bug but a feature.

That may be a bit of overgeneralizing on Gopnik’s part, but there’s some truth to it, particularly in terms of whack-job, satirical Sunshine State crime fiction—Hiassen, Shames, Dorsey and others. However, I tend to think that JDM and Brett Halliday (Dresser’s pen name), not to mention newer proponents such as White and Hall, partake more of the California lineage reborn in a fresh new setting.

Nevertheless, it’s enjoyable when a major league literary critic takes on our favorite genre. Gopnik’s opinions at the end of the essay—though written four years ago—resonate particularly. They tie the Hiaasen type of tale in presciently with the current socio-economic situation in America.

“This is a society without basic repressions. There are no dirty secrets. The movement is not from the center of the country to the edge, from rural to urban, but from south to north: emigration from South America and Cuba, bringing with it clan manners and, of course, a steady run of cocaine. Corruption begins to have a Third World quality; people barely try to conceal it. Not movies but television—in particular, tabloid reality television—hangs over everything, as an aspiration and a model of life. The cop or, more frequently, the reporter isn’t trying to restore chivalry to a world gone corrupt. It’s too far gone already. He is merely trying to assert ordinary decency in a world gone crazy…”

I have little doubt that JDM, if he were alive today, would find much merit in Gopnik’s argument. Indeed, our favorite author—America’s greatest writer of crime fiction—almost certainly saw it coming and was warning us in the voice of a rough-and-tumble salvage consultant.

To read Gopnick’s essay, just click here.