Florida is a fertile field for crime writers - and the Keys are its comical center, according to famed columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen.
Hiaasen, who made two appearances last weekend at the Key West Literary Seminar, would know.
As a member of a team of Miami Herald journalists who journeyed to the Keys in late 1979 to report on the growing issue of drug smuggling, Hiaasen got a first-hand look at a pot-percolated landscape littered with comical figures that are now part of local lore.
From covering narcotics-dealing Key West Fire Chief Bum Farto, whose disappearance inspired a line of T-shirts, to Armando (Popo) Quesada, who ran a cock-fighting racket, Hiaasen's early days in Key West may have provided just the kind of inspiration he needed when he began writing fiction in the early 1980s. By the end of that decade, he had become one of Florida's most popular authors with titles such as "Tourist Season" and "Skin Tight" under his belt.
Hiaasen's 1993 outing "Strip Tease" was eventually turned into a film starring Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds, and the author has since branched into young adult fiction and children's books. Yet another novel, "Lucky You," was turned into a play, which ran at the Waterfront Playhouse during the 2006-07 season.
However, it was the wealth of material available to crime writers in Florida, and the Keys in particular, that was the subject of Hiaasen's 45-minute talk to a standing-room audience at the San Carlos Institute on Jan. 10.
"We are blessed with an embarrassment of endless riches," Hiaasen announced to lusty laughter from the audience. The problem, he added, is writing such comedic crime "that doesn't then come true."
As an example, Hiaasen referenced his novel "Skinny Dip," where a woman, pushed overboard from a cruise ship, floats to safety on a bale of marijuana.
The release of that 2004 book, Hiaasen darkly noted, seemed to foreshadow a number of similar, real-life incidents of passengers "falling overboard" from one or another of the ocean-going behemoths, a phenomenon that left the author somewhat disturbed.
Fortunately for both Hiaasen and his audience, Florida's amusing, and/or white-collar crimes seem to outnumber the truly grisly one -- notwithstanding the fact that the Keys were the No. 1 jurisdiction for the arrest of fugitives back in the drug-drenched 1970s.
After pointing out that this state is the medical, mortgage and identity theft capital of the country, Hiaasen asserted that it's also the jurisdiction with the highest number of severed body parts being found.
Moving on to crimes involving animals, Hiaasen revealed that during the book tour for last year's "Bad Monkey," a number of patrons approached him with their own primate tales, "and all of them were bad."
Hiaasen also recounted the story of a domestic disturbance in a north Florida double-wide trailer that actually brought game wardens to the occupant's door. It turned out that the mobile home's owner had been, er ... cohabitating with a pair of alligators for whom he had developed "feelings." The gators were taken into custody for their own protection, prompting the upbraided man to launch an unprecedented two-and-a-half-year custody battle to reclaim his "pets."
Following the predictable final judgment against the reptile romancer, authorities released the beasts back into the wild, at a secret time and place, to keep the man from scooping them right back up again.
Following another similar story involving a man and his goat, state officials finally realized that they had to introduce a law making physical intimacy between humans and animals illegal, as it previously had not been. Somehow, it took five years and some anguished debate to get the law through the Legislature.
"Isn't this the same thing as animal husbandry?" some clueless state representative had inquired during the discussion on the matter, prompting yet another resident entrepreneur of the sunny crime state to create "Baah Means No" T-shirts for sale.
Still, it's the Keys that are on the "leading edge of this depravity," Hiaasen asserted, reminding the audience of the time a woman was arrested for causing an accident while shaving her bikini area -- all while driving on dangerous U.S. 1. The fact that the woman's ex-husband held the steering wheel for his former lady as she prettied herself up for her new boyfriend did not impress the arresting officer, who later admitted that the incident was even stranger than the time he pulled over a drug addict driving with three syringes sticking out of his arm.
Some such realities are just too off the chain to consider using in a novel, Hiaasen opined, including the cut-rate Miami "plastic surgeon" arrested for injecting fix-a-flat into the buttocks of willing customers.
And then there was the Key West-based operator of the "Key West Mile High Club" service, who crashed his plane in the Straights of Florida after one unaroused patron pulled a knife on him, and ordered the love craft directed to Havana.
"There's a crime at the root of all great fiction -- and a lot of it has to do with love," Hiaasen said.
Celebrities were also not spared Hiaasen's rapacious wit, as he recalled how radio ranter Rush Limbaugh had enjoyed the easy availability of prescription drugs during his years as a synthetic heroin addict.
"Rush Limbaugh comes here because we have the friendliest pharmacists," Hiaasen posited, delivering "dump trucks full of Vicodin" to his residence.
"Some of this stuff defies satire," Hiaasen insisted, to loud applause.
To those who follow Hiaasen's biting, often slightly angry columns, however, it's always been clear that the native Floridian doesn't just write about the state's many foibles out of cynicism, but because he actually cares about the "incredible, beautiful place" where he lives.
"It's about why we fight for it," he said. "Why we try to get them to stop building houses with Triscuits and Elmer's Glue."
All of which eventually brought Hiaasen to another favorite subject: The wonderful world of Walt Disney, and all that its longtime presence in Florida has done to and for the state.
Hiaasen recalled how one time the entertainment megacorporation's spin doctors had reacted to news that its white, dove-like homing pigeons, used for weddings at the theme park, had been butchered in the air by legions of red-tailed hawks desperate to find sustenance in their rapidly vanishing habitat.
The mangled corpses of the dead pigeons were literally "raining down on bride and groom" at the event, Hiaasen said. But the content of the press release was much kinder to the conglomerate.
"Disney seeks homes for 200 surviving pigeons," read the release, prompting Hiaasen to admit, "A lot of stuff I do I steal from the headlines."
In addition to Hiaasen's Jan. 10 talk, the author also shared the stage with Gillian Flynn, author of "Gone Girl," the following day.