Key West, which sells itself as a sunny resort, is taking a detour into the Dark Side. Over the next two weekends, the Key West Literary Seminar will examine mystery, crime, and the literary thriller with a line-up that includes Gillian Flynn, Lee Child, Carl Hiaasen, Scott Turow, Alexander McCall Smith and many more. Both sessions are sold out, but on the next two Sundays there are programs that are free and open to the public.
As the enthusiastic registration for this year’s Seminar shows, readers have a strong fascination and—odd as it is—fondness for stories about murder and violence and deception. Those topics are as old as human history and certainly of literature—according to the book of Genesis it only took two generations of humans before murder entered the picture and it was a fratricide at that. The myths of every culture are full of violence and drama, as full of those elements as our own history, the pages of our daily newspaper, and the popular entertainments that occupy our film and television screens. Not to mention, of course, our reading. These books are often described as mysteries, and that may mean a puzzle to be solved, a perpetrator to be caught. But a mystery can also be a much bigger question, almost a spiritual question about the search for motive and meaning in human life, as expressed through our actions and their occasionally catastrophic consequences. As much as we might wish otherwise in our more enlightened moments and insulate ourselves in our daily lives, this interest in the dark side seems to be in our DNA. We are, on a fundamental level, fascinated with transgression.
Key West seems like a particularly appropriate setting for this exploration. This small but legendary island has has been the setting for so many stories from Don Balasco of Key West in 1896 to Carl Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey, published last year. In between we had Hemingway and his tales of desperation and violence in To Have and Have Not, his only novel set in the U.S. We had Thomas McGuane creating homicidal fishing guides in 92 in the Shade. We even had some real-life episodes that would defy belief, even in a Hiaasen novel—like the German émigré radiologist in the 1930s who fell desperately in love with a tubercular young Cuban girl—so desperate that after she died he stole her body from the crypt and kept it in his homemade plane fuselage on the beach. He gave himself the title of Count Von Cosel and played organ music for his love, whom he was convinced awoke, spoke to him and would fly with him to the moon. When her semi-preserved body was discovered—SEVEN YEARS LATER—Key Westers were shocked—but made sure to put the waxy remains on display at the funeral home for a public wake that everyone in town attended. Including the kids. Von Cosel didn’t even face criminal charges—the statute of limitations on grave robbing had expired and they couldn’t figure out anything else to charge him with. This tale is an extreme example of the ethos that gives our island its refreshingly non-judgmental attitude—an attitude that lets things get far enough out of hand that historically the feds have had to descend once a decade or so to issue some indictments and restore some semblance of respect for outside authority. It can be disconcerting, certainly, but it’s also kind of fun to live in a place that elects the local strip-club owner to the city commission and celebrates one local guy’s elaborate Christmas display made entirely out of vodka bottles. The most popular website in town has to be the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office arrest log, which features mugshots, charges, and an entertaining array of occupations. In the last month, that page received more than nine hundred and fifty thousand hits—and this is a county with fewer than eighty thousand residents. As one friend of mine told me about Key West, “we don’t care what you do. We just want to know about it.”
Nancy Klingener is secretary of the Key West Literary Seminar and works at the Monroe County Public Library in Key West. She reviews books for the Miami Herald, and contributes the “Letter From Key West” to WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station.