“Key West—A Lush and Magical place for Cozy Mysteries,” by Claire Hamner Matturro

Claire Hamner Matturro

Review essay by Claire Hamner Matturro 

Key West.

Ah, just read the words in a mystery novel and a certain whirl and whoosh of coconut-scented, warm, moist air seems to fly off the pages. From the lush tropical landscape and the complex history to the raucous party atmosphere, from the old-world elegance of the Hemingway House to the dignity of Harry Truman’s Winter White House, Key West has everything one needs in a setting for a mystery novel.

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Climate, culture, crime—the staples of Florida mysteries and thrillers—are all part of the tropical paradise, yet Key West adds its own distinctive magic to the mix. And Key West has Jimmy Buffett, the legacies of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Harry Truman, all keeping company with the native conchs, hordes of tourists, drunk and otherwise, and, of course, the multi-toed cats at the Hemingway House.

Influenced by the Bahamian Conch, Cuban, Caribbean and African Americans cultures, Key West dangles an evocative collection of styles and ethos to delight writers—and readers. The “anything goes” atmosphere of Duval Street and Fantasy Fest add a dose of quirky, dangerous, magical and sometimes just downright weird to the mix. The confluence of charm and chaos makes Key West an ideal setting for a cozy mystery, one several noted Southern writers have used to their advantage.

Trouble in Paradise (KaliOka Press, 2018) by Rebecca Barrett is one such utterly charming mystery set in Key West. This cozy, the sixth in the Familiar legacy series, is the perfect blend of who-dunnit mystery and romance, and features Trouble, the black cat detective. Trouble might be a cat, but he is also a talented sleuth. He thinks in a British accent, compares himself favorably to Sherlock Holmes, and narrates about a third of the story. Trouble in Paradise is Rebecca Barrett’s second book in the multi-author series featuring Trouble, and it’s a grand, fun addition to the series.

Barrett has a dry, subtle wit that enlivens Trouble’s voice. Trouble sets out the essential conflict succinctly: “Liberty Anderson will never again shoo cats or any other creatures from her door. She is dead in Paradise.”

The leading lady, Ginger, is a Key West Conch who owns and manages a Bed and Breakfast handed down from her grandmother. Liberty turns up dead in her room at the B&B—a fact Ginger discovers when the male lead, Trout, comes to fetch Liberty for a chartered boat ride. Since Liberty isn’t the first dead woman in Trout’s life, suspicions land on him when Ginger’s long-time friend, police detective Duncan Moore, investigates. But it’s never really clear (until the climax, that is) why Liberty is dead, or even if she was the intended victim.

Events take another dreadful turn when someone knocks Ginger over the head. Trout, a one-time therapist who lost a patient, jumps into the investigation to clear himself as well as to protect Ginger. Trouble is already sniffing out clues, but he can’t get the people to understand how much he needs access to a certain room at the inn to solve matters. However, it’s hard to lock a cat—especially one with Trouble’s skills—out of a room forever.

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A French literary agent, an overweight rich man, an angry ex-wife, a box of ashes, a hidden attaché case, a Cuban with a wayward gymnast daughter, and a savvy collector of valuable items all add to the intrigue. But Trouble is the star, and this time he has two Hemingway cats—Megs and Bartholomew—to either help or hinder his investigation.

Rebecca Barrett

One great narrative feature in Trouble in Paradise is a visitor’s travel guide that’s expertly woven into the plot. Liberty’s Facebook page indicates she had hit just about every spot from Mallory Square to the Southernmost Point marker, enabling Ginger, Trouble, and Trout to track Liberty’s movements. Barrett captures the tropical atmosphere with a deft touch: “She listened to the sound of tourists passing along the street below as they debated what to see next. The faint skittering of claws alerted her that Eddie the iguana had appeared on the scene, checking to see who had invaded his aerie.”

This is a clever, inventive book, complexly plotted, with compelling characters. In the interest of full disclosure, the third book in the series, Trouble in Tallahassee, was written by this reviewer, but as each book in the series is strictly the work of that author, this reviewer was not involved in the writing or production of Trouble in Paradise.

In yet another recent cozy that makes excellent use of South Florida environs and villains (think pirates, embezzlers, and land developers), Facials Can be Fatal (Five Star Publishing, 2017) by Nancy Cohen is not wholly set in Key West, but a pivotal part of the plot does take place there. Cohen is the author of the Bad Hair Day series of humorous cozy mysteries, featuring South Florida hairstylist Marla Vail. When a wealthy and influential socialist dies in Marla’s business during a facial, Marla proceeds to investigate. Her police detective husband helps out, but in typical cozy fashion the book focuses more on Marla’s amateur sleuthing than on the official law-enforcement detectives.

One interesting twist in Facials Can Be Fatal is that part of the plot takes place in the Keys in the 1930s with another portion in contemporaneous times. Thus readers get a look backwards to an era when adventure seekers “spent an entire morning in a fruitless search for nonexistent beaches on low-lying and swampy islands, which were nothing but breeding places for mosquitoes and other insects.”

Summer Prescott

Nancy Cohen

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Summer Prescott, USA Today bestseller and author of nearly 100 cozy mysteries, has a Key West Culinary Cozy Series, which includes eight books. They all have clever titles, including the word “lime.” The books are currently unavailable except as used books. Prescott is revising them and will release new editions in 2019.

In the series’ last book, Live and Lime Die, Marilyn Hayes owns SubLime Sweets, a bakery famous for key lime pies. Her daughter Tiara manages the shop. When a rude, red-haired woman comes in the shop to buy pies, the adventure begins. A man from Tiara’s past stalks her, but when he’s peeping in her windows, someone knocks him out and whacks off some of his long hair. From that point on, suspense and romance spin through the story at a quick and enjoyable pace.

Another delightful cozy set in Key West is by veteran writer Lucy Burdette. Death on the Menu (Crooked Lane Books, 2018) is the eighth and newest contribution to Burdette’s food critic series. Hayley Snow is a spunky, curious and impetuous food critic for a local magazine, Key Zest. She is also an amateur—even accidental—sleuth. She lives on a boat on Houseboat Row, which her boyfriend, police detective Nathan Bransford, thinks resembles “a trailer park, only floating.” Hayley shares the boat with her octogenarian good friend, Miss Gloria.

Lucy Burdette

Hayley has an admitted tendency to act before thinking, and Nathan has strong protective tendencies, a situation bound to create tension between them. In the beginning of Death on the Menu, Nathan asks Hayley and her mother to step away from a prized catering job at a high-brow, three-day Cuban/American conference in the Truman Winter White House. As a police officer, Nathan has inside information that there will be trouble. But Hayley knows how important the catering job is for her mother’s fledgling business, so she and her mom stick with it. As her mother’s assistant at the conference, Hayley earns a front-row seat for the action.

Just as Nathan predicted, trouble brews at the conference. In seeking to build bridges between Cuban and Key West/American interests, the event brings out sign-waving, shouting protestors, as well as angry conference attendees. If that wasn’t enough to create a security nightmare, former President Barack Obama and singer Jimmy Buffett are guests.

Quickly things go wrong. Hemingway’s Nobel Prize gold medal for The Old Man and the Sea, which the author presented as a gift to the Cuban people and which is on loan for the conference, goes missing. A Cuban man working for Hayley’s Mom is the initial suspect, but then he turns up dead in a closet, savagely cut by one of Hayley’s mother’s knives. Since the dead man’s family does not trust the police, they ask Hayley to help find the killer. She agrees, knowing it not only puts her in jeopardy, but also increases the tension between her and over-protective Nathan.

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What follows is a twisting plot, with dashes of sly humor, excellent world-building, suspense, romance, and plenty of references to mouth-watering food. This is not a book to read, by the way, if you are dieting. Alas, the prize-winning flan and Hayley’s own mojito cake both meet with a sorry end.

All in all, Burdette has a wonderful sense of what makes a cozy novel work. Though the characters and plot are lively and intriguing, the setting adds to the story’s charm. Burdette spins an authentic sense of place, as well she might, since she currently lives in Key West part of the year. Here’s a sample of her clear, descriptive style:

The Hemingway Home and Museum on Whitehead Street is one of the top tourist sites on the island. Hemingway lived in this home during the thirties with his second wife, Pauline. Even with the lines of visitors gawking at the house, the grounds, and the cats, this place still manages to bring my blood pressure down each time I step inside the brick walls that mark the perimeter of the property. Some of my reaction is due simply to the grace of the white painted home with its lime-green shutters and black metal railings, accompanied by a most inviting pool and surrounded with stunning tropical foliage. And some of it is the mob of polydactyls who live here, many-toed cats said to be the descendants of Hemingway’s beloved first cat, Snow White.

A clinical psychologist, Burdette is the author of the golf lovers mystery series and the advice column mysteries.

Settle back with a margarita, a little Jimmy Buffett playing in the background, and enjoy reading any or all of these books.

 

Comments

  1. Carolyn Haines says:

    I want to read them all! Great reviews.

  2. Cheryl Arcemont says:

    Gosh, great autho authors and a new-to-me author! I want to read all of them and the series they are a part of!

  3. Thanks for the mention!

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