‘Bad Monkey’ to ‘Sanibel Flats’: 11 Florida crime writers and their best beach reads

Before heading to the beach with sunscreen and a favorite liquid refreshment, many grab that juicy crime novel to devour while waves lap at the shore.

Beach reads are fun, light, page-turning books that offer a perfect way to pass the time with toes in the sand.

It only makes sense that Florida authors pen some of the best beach reads found at bookstores, libraries and online.

Here are 11 novelists whose works have a connection to the Sunshine State, whether they wrote about Florida in their crime thrillers, have lived here or both.

A few have left us but their lurid tales endure. 

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Carl Hiaasen

Journalist and Florida-themed author Carl Hiaasen speaks March 22.

Florida native Carl Hiaasen got a crash course in Sunshine State lunacy early in his career. He started working as a reporter for the Miami Herald at 23 and wrote an opinion column for the newspaper from 1985 until 2021. He wrote three novels with fellow journalist, the late William D. Montalbano, in the early 1980s, and published his first solo novel, “Tourist Season,” in 1986. He now has 31 books to his credit, including six for young adult readers. His latest, “Squeeze Me,” features a president with a second home in South Florida, a missing socialite, giant boa constrictors and a FLOTUS fling with a Secret Service agent. Want more? “Ted Lasso” co-creator Bill Lawrence is adapting Hiaasen’s 2013 best-seller “Bad Monkey” for Apple TV. Vince Vaughn will executive produce the 10-episode series and will star as Andrew Yancy, a detective who has been demoted to restaurant inspector. – Suzy Fleming Leonard, FLORIDA TODAY

Edna Buchanan 

Mystery writer Edna Buchanan poses against the night skyline in Miami, Nov. 17, 1993. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, who reported on 5,000 violent deaths for the Miami Herald, became a fiction writer and recounted the crimes she covered in her first two autobiographical books. [AP Photo/Daniel Portnoy]

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for her police-beat reporting at the Miami Herald where she worked for nearly two decades, Edna Buchanan wrote the acclaimed true-crime memoirs “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face” and “Never Let Them See You Cry” but is most beloved for her novels featuring the smart, scrappy and utterly charming Cuban-American reporter Britt Montero. The series of nine mystery books (so far) started in 1992 with “Contents Under Pressure,” with our favorite entry, “Miami, It’s Murder,” published two years later.

Moreno, with a dying detective friend as her main source, attempts to solve a decades-old sex murder case while following the trail of a serial rapist through downtown Miami. Buchanan was famous as a journalist for her gripping opening sentences and does not disappoint here. “He was the man every woman dreams about – in her worst nightmares,” reads the opening sentence of “Miami, It’s Murder.” By turns grisly, humorous and heartwarming, the book remains a bit of an overlooked gem in the pantheon of Florida crime fiction classics. – Wade Tatangelo, Sarasota Herald-Tribune 

John Grisham 

Best-selling author John Grisham at his office in Charlottesville, Va., Oct. 11, 2021. (Donald Johnson/The New York Times)

There are a couple of things you can count on with every John Grisham novel: It’s going to sell very well, and it’s going to be perfect for reading on the beach; Grisham has a quick, conversational style of writing and doesn’t overcomplicate things in his plots. Florida figures prominently in several of his bestsellers. For a Florida twist, consider Grisham’s “Camino Island,” which is set on a fictional island that bears a lot of resemblance to Amelia Island, and its sequel, “Camino Winds.” “The Whistler” is centered around a Panhandle casino. Neptune Beach’s Sea Turtle Inn and a slightly fictionalized version of Pete’s Bar show up in “The Brethren,” and much of “The Racketeer,” about a guy in the witness protection program, is set in the Jacksonville area. – Tom Szaroleta, Florida Times-Union

Tim Dorsey

“Florida Roadkill” novelist Tim Dorsey

Tampa resident Tim Dorsey got to know Florida Man during his first career as a newspaper reporter and editor at the Tampa Tribune. He introduced the world to Serge A. Storm, a serial killer you can’t help rooting for, in 1999. Twenty-three years and 25 books later, Serge continues to traipse across Florida with his drunked up, drugged out sidekick Coleman, giving an off-beat Florida history lesson and finding creative ways to kill folks who need killing. Environmental villain? You’re going down. Vacation rental investor pricing locals out of their homes? Look out. Violent and wacky though they may be, Dorsey’s books pay homage to all that is weird and wonderful about Florida. The latest in Dorsey’s Serge series, “Mermaid Confidential,” published in January. – Suzy Fleming Leonard, FLORIDA TODAY

John D. MacDonald

Prolific author John D. MacDonald wrote the Travis McGee series and also some precautionary tales of condo life on the keys.

The Godfather of Florida crime fiction, Pennsylvania native John D. MacDonald penned his most famous novels while residing in the Sunshine State, where he maintained a home in Sarasota from the early 1950s until about the time of his passing in 1986. During this period, he published such novels as 1957’s “The Executioners” (filmed as “Cape Fear” in 1962 and 1991), 1962’s “A Flash Of Green” (1984 film of the same name shot in Sarasota) and 1977’s brilliant, condo-owning cautionary tale “Condominium” (adapted for an HBO special that debuted in 1980). Also while in Sarasota, MacDonald wrote his masterful Travis McGee series featuring the self-described “salvage consultant” who lives in a houseboat dubbed Busted Flush in Fort Lauderdale.

In 1972, the Mystery Writers of America gave MacDonald its Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement while in 2016 programs honoring MacDonald culminated with a daylong 100th birthday party and the unveiling of a historical plaque outside the Selby Public Library in downtown Sarasota. That same year, authors such as Stephen King (who also has a home in Sarasota), Lee Child, Carl Hiaasen, Dennis Lehane, Randy Wayne White and John Jakes (another famous Sarasota resident) paid tribute to MacDonald with a series of essays titled “John D and me” published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. – Wade Tatangelo, Sarasota Herald-Tribune 

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Steve Berry 

Best-selling author Steve Berry

Steve Berry spent years working as an attorney in South Georgia before becoming a full-time author. He now lives in the Orlando area and makes regular trips to Jacksonville to do research at the sprawling Chamblin Bookmine bookstore. Berry’s books center around Cotton Malone, a bookseller with some serious international espionage skills, and each book hinges on an obscure but true historical fact. “The Bishop’s Pawn,” Berry’s 2018 novel, was almost entirely set in Florida and dealt with a cache of secret files dealing with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Berry called the novel his “ode to Florida,” and it includes scenes in St. Augustine, the Dry Tortugas, Starke, Micanopy and a Gainesville bus station, plus a memorable showdown on an iconic ride at the Magic Kingdom. – Tom Szaroleta, Florida Times-Union

Randy Wayne White

Bestselling Sanibel Island novelist Randy Wayne White

Sanibel and Captiva are quiet islands in the Gulf of Mexico, hardly a place for criminals bent on committing heinous acts. Yet that’s the intrigue surrounding novels resident author Randy Wayne White pens from Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar & Grille, of which he’s a partner. White’s main character, Doc Ford, in most of his novels – with titles like “The Heat Islands,” “Captiva” and “Salt River” – is a marine biologist and retired National Security Agency agent. Ford and his colorful fellow islanders solve mysteries with Southwest Florida as the backdrop. A few favorites are his first Doc Ford novel, “Sanibel Flats” and “Twelve Mile Limit,” about one of his friends who mysteriously disappears off Marco Island. His other protagonist, Hannah Smith, is a fishing guide captain who works to crack open cases also set in Florida in four White novels from the previous decade. – Dave Osborn, Naples Daily News

James Patterson

Author and Palm Beach resident James Patterson strolls past window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue in January 2021.

Palm Beach-based best-selling author James Patterson holds a few Guinness World Record titles for his astronomical book sales and earnings. And yet, he rarely sets his books, most of them crime novels, in the tropical-posh island he knows so well. But if you want to dive into a Patterson beach read with a Palm Beach or South Florida setting, you do have a few options. His 2006 novel “Lifeguard,” a steamy crime thriller dotted with Palm Beach references, like the Brazilian Court Hotel, Café Boulud’s DB Burger and vintage cars from the old Ragtops. His 2011 book “Now You See Her” is a suspense-filled story of a successful lawyer hiding a secret past, one that’s rooted in Key West. His 2020 police thriller “Lost” is set in Miami. And in 2021, Patterson returned to Palm Beach with “The Palm Beach Murders,” which begins with a scene set at the Palm Beach Grill and expands across the county. The book’s promo material sums it up like this: “Palm Beach doesn’t just have billionaires, yachts, and private planes – it also has the best murder plots money can buy.” Pass the sunscreen. – Liz Balmaseda, The Palm Beach Post

Jeff Lindsay

Author Jeff Lindsay in 2006 poses next to a poster from Showtime series “Dexter” at his home in Cape Coral. The eighth and final novel in the Dexter series, “Dexter Is Dead,” was published in July 2015. Lindsay said he has mixed feelings about leaving a popular character and a successful book series behind.

People who enjoy the wit of Hannibal Lecter might like Dexter Morgan, the fictional namesake of author Jeff Lindsay’s book series “Dexter” that spawned a hit TV show. In his public life, Dexter is a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami police department; his hidden life as a serial killer makes him uniquely qualified for the job. Dexter focuses his thirst for murder on people who, in his view, need killing. And carrying out the murders temporarily satiates the “Dark Passenger,” Dexter’s inner urging to kill, according to penguinrandomhouse.com.

The book series begins with “Darkly Dreaming Dexter,” which opens with a quick pace as Dexter describes capturing and killing a priest. Dig your toes into the sand and turn the pages to find out more about his first victim in the series. 

Lindsay, who lives in Cape Coral, explained in a 2015 interview with The News-Press in Fort Myers why he decided to stop writing about “this psychotic monster,

“I made a promise to myself and my readers: If I felt like I was getting to a point where I was phoning it in, I’d quit,” he said. “And I didn’t feel like I was there, by any means. But I thought that it could happen. For the first time, I could feel like it might happen sometime. So I thought I should go out on a high note. And I think I did.” – Sheldon Gardner, The St. Augustine Record

Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard, seen here in 2012 at his home in Michigan, also called Florida home and used it as a setting in his stories.

While his hometown was the Motor City, Elmore Leonard’s greatest muse turned out to be South Florida, where he bought his mother a four-unit motel in the late 1960s and then began regularly spending time in the Sunshine State about a decade later. These experiences – spent driving around Miami, reading daily newspaper reports and such – informed Leonard’s most famous novels including the hilarious, 1990 gangster-in-Hollywood tale “Get Shorty.” Featuring Miami Beach-based mafia loan shark Chili Palmer, who John Travolta played in the hit movie of the same name, the novel opens with Palmer getting his leather jacket ripped off while having lunch at “Vesuvio’s on South Collins.”  

Quentin Tarantino adapted Leonard’s 1992 novel “Rum Punch,” set in West Palm Beach and Miami, into the 1997 movie “Jackie Brown,” which the filmmaker set in Los Angeles. Then came 1996’s “Out of Sight,” about “gentleman bank robber” Jack Foley busting out of Florida’s Glades Prison and hooking up with Deputy U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco after the two bond over a discussion of classic films while squeezed into the trunk of her car. Also made into an outstanding ’90s film, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney as Foley and Jennifer Lopez as Sisco, “Out of Sight” might just be the greatest novel by Leonard, who died in 2013 at age 87. – Wade Tatangelo, Sarasota Herald-Tribune 

Janet Evanovich

“The Recovery Agent” author Janet Evanovich.

New Jersey native Janet Evanovich lives year-round in Naples but hasn’t forgotten her home state.

She continues to write novels including the Stephanie Plum series about the fictional bounty hunter. Her latest work is the 28th in the series, “Game On: Tempting Twenty-Eight,” which published in November.

Evanovich has said she’s living the American dream, following her passion to write. Before she became a stay-at-home mom, she told the Naples Daily News in 2018, she worked other jobs to help make ends meet – similar to her Plum character – while raising two children with her husband, Pete, of more than 50 years.

“Telephone solicitor, a waitress, sold used cars, worked for a hospital supply company selling colostomy bags,” she said. “You name it, I had the worst job.” 

Drawing on her experiences growing up just off the Jersey Turnpike, Evanovich created the Plum character and others associated with the series beginning with the first, “One For The Money,” in 1994.

She rarely writes about Florida, but she did in “Takedown Twenty” when a giraffe escapes in Trenton, New Jersey, and when it was captured, a character says “there’s a zoo in Naples, Florida, that’ll take it.”

In another novel, she had smugglers coming ashore in Port Royal, an affluent Naples neighborhood.

“Stephanie plods along through life,” Evanovich said in the Daily News story. “She really has no special skills, no real aspirations. She’s very average; she’s like a lot of us.” 

– Dave Osborn, Naples Daily News