Thank God for books.
That’s a sentiment we’d share anytime, but especially now, after years of reeling from coronavirus updates, economic uncertainty, social distancing and isolation, and the closings of some of our favorite haunts. A good book can, temporarily, take you away from all that, placing you in an alternate reality, a different world. So, while we’re on the subject, how about checking out (perhaps not from your library, if it’s closed, but try ordering from a store, like Bookstore1, to help support local business) some of these books, all related to Sarasota and written by authors who have lived here?
Packed with crime, history, humor and Florida flavor, these books range over the decades and genres, but they all give us insight into this place we call home. Whether you’re a newcomer or a long-timer here, they’re worth a look.
Our Book List
Condominium, by John D. MacDonald, published in 1977
Of course, we start the list with a novel by one of the best-known of our authors, who penned the Travis McGee series about a “salvage consultant” who also sees himself as a knight in rusty armor. But Condominium, a non-McGee novel, stands on its own as an archetype of tales dealing with greedy developers, under-the-table payoffs, dirty secrets, condo board associations, and, ultimately, the really big storm, described in heart-pounding prose, that’s going to wipe out the poorly built Golden Sands on Fiddler Key (read: Siesta Key, where MacDonald lived.) No less a Florida writer than Carl Hiaasen says of MacDonald that he was “the first modern writer to nail Florida dead-center, to capture all its languid sleaze, racy sense of promise and breath-grabbing beauty.” Yep.
A Flash of Green, by John D. MacDonald, published in 1962
Long before Condominium, and before the Travis McGee books, MacDonald wrote this heartfelt story of a newspaper reporter in “Palm Bay,” Florida, who gets caught between a corrupt county commissioner and a friend’s widow, who’s part of a group trying to save a bay from—you guessed it—another greedy developer. (Think Bird Key, expanded by dredge-and-fill operations in the late 1950s; MacDonald even calls the group SOBs, Save Our Bays, based on a real citizens’ group.) Filmed here in 1984 with Ed Harris as the reporter, Blair Brown as the widow and Richard Jordan as the commissioner, A Flash of Green is a title referencing more than that occasional brief flash seen at sunset; it’s also the color of money.
The Matthew Hope books, by Ed McBain, published from 1978 to 1998
The prolific McBain (or Evan Hunter, as he was known to most here) may be best known for his 87th Precinct police procedurals set in the fictional city of Isola (based on Manhattan). But as a part-time Sarasota resident for many years, he also wrote 13 books set in “Calusa,” featuring lawyer Matthew Hope, who keeps getting involved in cases his partner wishes he wouldn’t. Each book bears a fairy tale-related name, including Goldilocks, Jack and the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots, The House That Jack Built and more. Hunter altered names and descriptions slightly (John Ringling mansion Ca’ d’Zan is renamed Ca’ d’Ped in one book, for example), but to any Sarasota resident the allusions are clear.
The Lew Fonesca books, by Stuart Kaminsky, published from 1999 to 2009
Kaminsky was another prolific writer with multiple series, featuring cops or private detectives from Hollywood to Chicago to Moscow. (He also wrote the script for the crime saga film Once Upon a Time in America). The Fonesca novels center on a down-and-out process server who’s on his way from Cook County, Illinois, to the Florida Keys (following the death of his wife in an unsolved hit-and-run) when his car breaks down in Sarasota. So he sets up shop in an office by the (now sadly demolished) Dairy Queen on Washington Boulevard, making ends meet with investigative work for attorneys involving bail jumpers and lost wives. Lew is a bit of a sad sack, but he cares about the people he meets in his work, and Kaminsky sprinkles Sarasota locations and atmosphere throughout.
Duma Key, by Stephen King, published in 2008
This book by horror master King reached No. 1 on The New York Times best seller list upon publication; it’s his first novel to be set in Florida, where he has a seasonal home on Casey Key. And he makes good use of the setting in a creepy story involving a Minnesota building contractor, Edgar Freemantle, who suffers severe injuries impairing his speech, vision and memory. In the throes of a divorce, he heads to a beach house on the island of Duma Key, inhabited, among others, by an octogenarian heiress in the final stages of dementia. He begins to feverishly create artwork that’s tied to some mysterious ship-and-seaside incidents from the past, and even has an art exhibition at an upscale Sarasota gallery yielding half a million in sales (a figure most dealers here can only dream of). But, as you might expect, things turn severely downward as an evil force and a ship of damned souls destroy whatever peace and calm a Florida island is supposed to offer.
Final Argument, by Clifford Irving, published in 1993
Sure, you all know Irving from the notorious Howard Hughes autobiography hoax of the 1970s that briefly sent him to prison. But both before and after that, Irving was a serious writer with a string of books to his name, and he spent his last years in Sarasota. That’s where he placed some of the action of this novel focused on lawyer Ted Jaffe, who years before as a district attorney helped to convict an innocent man for murder. Now that man is set to die, and Jaffe, haunted by guilt (he happened to have had an affair with the murder victim’s wife, natch), places his career, his marriage and even his own safety at risk to save the prisoner’s life. Jaffe is a criminal lawyer with a conscience; how about that?
No Sunscreen for the Dead, by Tim Dorsey, published in 2019
If you’ve somehow never read any of Dorsey’s 20-plus Serge Storms books (Storms is a vigilante serial killer, but he always picks people who deserve to die for their sins, so, you know, it’s OK, and it’s frequently hilarious), you really should. The series began with Florida Road Kill in 1999, and several of the books feature Sarasota area locations, including beloved bars the Bahi Hut and the Crescent Club and the wild expanses of Myakka River State Park (the latter in Electric Barracuda). But Dorsey, a former Sarasota County beat reporter for the Tampa Tribune who once lived behind the Dairy Queen here (take that, Lew Fonesca), set Sunscreen almost entirely in Sarasota, showcasing the denizens of a retirement trailer park, many of them veterans. Perhaps surprisingly, Serge clicks with them.
Walker Evans: Florida, published in 2000
Our very own Mr. Chatterbox, aka Bob Plunket, wrote the text to accompany the images of famed photographer Evans, who crafted visuals of Depression-era American in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with James Agee). In 1942, former UPI head Karl Bickel, living in Sarasota, was working on a history of the Gulf region, The Mangrove Coast (also worth a look for its recounting of the lives of Indian tribes and Spanish invaders) and invited Evans to take the pictures for it during a six-week visit here. The 52 images included in Walker Evans’ Florida are not sunny, beachy postcard pictures but feature decaying architecture, street scenes, retirees, and wagons and animals from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Edge of Wilderness (1983) and Sarasota: Journey to Centennial (1989), both by Janet Snyder Matthews
If you’re new to the area and think the Sarasota area sprang to life only after World War II, boy, are you wrong. Local historian Matthews fills these two books with details and characters that bring the past vividly to life. In the first, she delves into the settlement history of the Manatee River and Sarasota Bay from 1528 to 1885; in the second, she provides “a pictorial and entertaining commentary on the growth and development of Sarasota, Florida”—the book’s long subtitle—tracing our story from those pioneers who founded our fair city amid the hardships of mosquitoes, hurricanes and more to the small city it became just 30 years ago. Time for a sequel?
Quintessential Sarasota; Sarasota: A History; Hidden History of Sarasota and more, by Jeff LaHurd
Historian Jeff LaHurd wasn’t born in Sarasota, but he grew up here, and his fondness for the town he knew in the 1950s and ’60s (along with info and anecdotes dating back to the Roaring ’20s prohibition era) is obvious in all of his writing. Whether he’s reminiscing about longtime local hangout the Smack, the lamented Lido Beach Casino, the circus winter quarters and other lost landmarks or the joys of spring training and hometown radio shows, LaHurd’s friendly style keeps you reading—as do the evocative images that fill every page.
The Dixie Hemingway books, by Blaize Clement, published 2005 to present
Clement, who lived on Siesta Key, made it the setting for her series focused on Dixie, a former Sarasota County sheriff’s department deputy who turns to what she thinks will be the safer world of pet sitting after a tragic incident. However, she keeps stumbling over dead bodies in her piece of paradise, starting with Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter and continuing through to 2016’s The Cat Sitter and the Canary. (Clement’s son John has continued the series after her death in 2011.) With their human characters supported by Maine coon cats, orange toms, tropical fish, dachshunds and other pets, these books fit into the “cozy” mystery genre, right for a lazy afternoon’s read.
Dead Fish Wind by Cooper Levey-Baker, published 2021
Dead Fish Wind is the debut novel from Sarasota Magazine editor-in-chief Cooper Levey-Baker. Its protagonist is Cicely, who's stuck working a crappy job to take care of her deadbeat father and living just a step above homelessness in a town ruled by a remote, affluent elite and stricken with a catastrophic outbreak of red tide. But then Cicely makes a friend and starts dreaming of a way out of her predicament. The plot involves stolen placentas and a dangerous outlaw doula, and eagle-eyed locals will have fun guessing which people, buildings and events inspired the plot points.