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Mystery novels explore ‘dark side of the Sunshine State’

May 4, 2019
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University of North Florida English professor Michael Wiley photographed outside the Midtown Lodge, known for decades as the Gator Lodge on Philips Highway in Jacksonville, Florida Wednesday, April 24, 2019. Wiley writes detective novels set in Jacksonville and uses locations around the city as backdrops to his stories. (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The way Michael Wiley figures it, South Florida shouldn’t have all the deadly fun.

All those sweaty, weird, wacky, nasty, colorful, tropical crime stories — from Carl Hiaasen, John D. MacDonald, Tim Dorsey, Edna Buchanan, Randy Wayne White, Elmore Leonard, Jeff Lindsay and who knows how many more — have come to define the Florida mystery novel.

But what about the forgotten other end of the state, way up north but more of the South? That’s Wiley’s territory.

A University of North Florida English professor specializing in British Romanticism (Wordsworth, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Byron and the like), he’s published four hard-boiled murder mysteries set in and around Jacksonville, dark and violent yarns he calls “North Florida city, swamp, and island thrillers.”

It’s fertile, mucky ground, rich with corruption and secrets and violence, often with those big thunderstorms looming on the horizon. “One of the ways I like to think about writing about Jacksonville,” he said, “is that I’m writing about the dark side of the Sunshine State.”

His stories are so Jacksonville that one narrator, a former Sandalwood High student just out of prison, can get off a bus at Regency Mall and muse on how hollowed out Regency is now: “When I was a kid, the mall drew shoppers from around the city and south from the Georgia border. In the days before Christmas, traffic would back up for miles. On summer nights, you couldn’t get a ticket for a new release at the AMC Cineplex unless you came three hours early. But now the Regency was dying, the parking lots almost empty.”

His stories are so Jacksonville that there are scenes set in a restaurant called Sahara Sandwiches, located in an old Skinner Dairy store on Philips Highway, where a sign shows “a man eating a pita sandwich while riding a camel.”

His stories are so Jacksonville that one character can acknowledge the city’s reputation as the murder capital of Florida, yet still remark on the pleasure of driving in the early evening on the Wonderwood Expressway, going over the Intracoastal Waterway and the marshes at Cemetery Creek, past the egrets and blue herons in the “endless nameless streams” and up to Mayport, “where the big, lazy mouth of the St. Johns River opened into the Atlantic Ocean.”

Once there, she ate at Safe Harbor Seafood Market, next to the shrimp boats and pelicans, with the car ferry making its way against the current. Characters also chow down at the Metro Diner, Woody’s Bar-B-Q and La Nopalera, and a crucial scene takes place outside Chopstick Charley’s on Philips, a highway that makes frequent appearances in the books.

Wiley’s characters go to Fernandina Beach, Ponte Vedra, Murray Hill, Callahan, Cumberland Island and Ortega, home to “the old money in Jacksonville,” with yards shaded by “live oaks whose trunks had fattened on summer rains for two or more centuries.”

They visit the Fulton Landing boat ramp, Black Creek, Heckscher Drive, Hemming Plaza, Dunn Avenue, the Hart Bridge, the Mathews Bridge and the “concrete bunker” of the sheriff’s headquarters on the river, and they follow news from the Times-Union, Action News, First Coast News and the Tribune & Georgian from Kingsland.

One of Wiley’s North Florida books is called “Monument Road.” Another is “Blue Avenue.” Both are real Jacksonville streets. Another is called “Black Hammock,” after the island at the end of the road in the far northeastern stretch of Jacksonville.

Rest assured: Terrible things, ghastly things, go down in all those places.

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‘IT WAS TIME’

Wiley, 57, grew up in Chicago, where his mother devoured mysteries on a daily basis. “It was a one-a-day habit for her,” he says. “She never smoked, but she burned through the books.”

It influenced him. “I think I was probably the youngest kid in all of America who had an Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine subscription. I was reading that when other kids were reading Boy’s Life.”

By college, though, he was paying more attention to literature “with a capital L.” After that he wrote plays, political speeches, freelance stories. Then back to grad school, where the British romantic writers he’d disdained in college came alive for him.

Decades later, he came back to mysteries, and began writing about Chicagoan Joe Kozmarski, a troubled ex-cop-turned-private-eye who plied his trade in three novels set in Wiley’s hometown. They were well-received; his first, “The Last Striptease,” was nominated for the Private Eye Writers of America’s Shamus Award, and won the group’s competition for best first novel. “The Bad Kitty Lounge” and “A Bad Night’s Sleep” followed.

Wiley knew he wanted to write about Jacksonville too: It has a personality of its own, and hadn’t appeared enough in mystery novels. The humid setting appealed to him too: “All the rivers — anything that’s wet and marshy and can decompose a body is automatically on the landscape.”

But he wasn’t ready yet to write about Jacksonville — he hadn’t been there long enough, didn’t know it like Chicago, didn’t know it well enough to do it justice.

Still, from the time he moved to the city, 21 years ago, he had been taking notes about the place. “Then when I would look at them three months later, I’d be embarrassed by them,” he said. “They looked like the notes of a newcomer. They looked like what I might scribble on a postcard after having visited a place for 45 minutes. That’s not the stuff of a good book.”

To write about a place, you need to really know it, know how the people talk and act, how the power structure works, where the secrets are buried. Finally, he decided he was ready, and in 2014 his first Jacksonville book, “Blue Avenue,” was published. The next three years brought “Second Skin,” ″Black Hammock” and “Monument Road.”

“I wanted to find a voice that could match this place. I’m not presuming to think that I was going to be able to capture it, but I had this idea that this place has a voice, a set of characteristics that are different from anyplace else,” he said. “It was time.”

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HARD-BOILED

Wiley’s characters, even the protagonists, are often deeply flawed, some even capable of violence to match the villain. It’s part of that noir tradition in hard-boiled, classic crime novels, complete with sex and violence, where it’s sometimes hard to tell the good guy from the bad.

Kirkus Reviews, for example, called “Second Skin” ″satisfyingly doom-and-gloomy,” while noting of “Monument Road: “Like your noir pitch-black? So does Wiley.”

He agrees that it’s the hard-boiled stuff that he likes, though he doesn’t go as dark as some writers. “I would put myself anywhere from soft-boiled to hard-boiled,” he said. “Very rarely will I have a child kidnapped or killed, and in my stories I try not to kill pets — so that line would probably keep me from being in the hardest of the hard-boiled.”

Wiley has added a detective-fiction class at UNF to go with his British writers and poets, and he’s still writing: He has a three-book contract for a new private-eye series set in Chicago, and he’s working on a crime story set mostly in Jacksonville, going back in history and continuing to the present day.

Some reviewers have said his books have strong elements of Southern Gothic writing, with which he doesn’t disagree: He’s a big fan, after all, of James Lee Burke and his moody Louisiana mysteries. And though Jacksonville isn’t as Southern as it was when he first moved to the city, Wiley sees it as still distinctive enough, still flawed and fascinating enough, to keep writing about it.

“It has a history, it has conflicts, it has people who don’t get along. It has a rich history of violence, and of happiness too, right?” he said.

“All of its characteristics turn this into a city that, like the most interesting cities, has deep contradictions — immense beauties and also some real corruptions. That’s, in a lot of ways, like the best hard-boiled character, whether it’s the detective, who is a flawed figure herself or himself, or the villain. Or the victim.”

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Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com