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By PAUL A. BERGIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000
By now, only the most blissfully uninformed would dispute the notion that the most vital and important community of crime fiction writers in the world resides in Florida. From the bestseller lists to the legion of important mid-list authors who test the limits of the genre with each new book, the evidence is overwhelming. Los Angeles and New York each enjoyed periods of primacy. But since 1964, when Travis McGee first sallied forth in determined search of salvage, the influence and appeal of the Florida crime story has grown until it is now as ubiquitous as the locked room mystery once was.
Less well established, perhaps, is the idea that this is not an accidental development, but the inevitable result of a lengthy and rich tradition of Florida crime writing with roots in the pulp magazines of the Depression Era. With Orange Pulp, a collection of excerpts, short stories, and one complete novel, 1998 Edgar nominees Maurice J. O'Sullivan and Steve Glassman attempt to establish and illustrate that heritage. For the most part, they succeed.
In one respect, they succeed brilliantly. The inclusion of the complete text of The Hated One, Don Tracy's long out-of-print novel of rednecks, race and regret, will occasion joy in the breast of any serious aficionado of Florida crime fiction. Combining a deeply flawed protagonist, unpolished but compelling prose, and a theme of racial injustice that, in 1963, was only beginning to gain currency, The Hated One succeeds both as a novel and as a bridge between the pulp writing of the past and the more thoughtful, fully realized Florida novels that were then beginning to appear in hardcover and as paperback originals.
Another important selection is The First Five in Line, a previously unpublished fragment (and all that exists) of a 1975 novel subsequently abandoned by Charles Willeford. Mordantly funny and breezily self-assured, Willeford's savage satire today seems nearly prophetic in light of developments in television "reality programming." Orange Pulp's remaining seven selections are less inspired, but will be of interest to individuals desiring a quick overview of the history of Florida crime writing. Included are short stories by Edwin Granberry and Mary Roberts Rinehart and excerpts from novels by Carroll John Daly, Jonathan Latimer, Brett Halliday, John D. MacDonald and Stephen Ransome. The Rinehart story is the only work she ever set in Florida, and its inclusion as representative is baffling, but otherwise the editors' author choices are well reasoned and defensible.
Their decision, however, to use excerpts of longer works, rather than self-contained and readily available pieces by represented authors or equivalent talents, is troublesome. It makes one wonder if Orange Pulp is meant as an anthology with popular appeal or as a textbook for a college survey course. Such vagueness of purpose will limit Orange Pulp's commercial potential, but it's a flaw that is unlikely to prove fatal. Florida crime fiction is the sine qua non of contemporary American blood writing and Orange Pulp, its faults notwithstanding, is a volume of substantial worth to anyone seeking to understand its development.
- Paul A. Bergin is a writer who lives in Sarasota.
Edited by Maurice J. O'Sullivan and Steve Glassman
University Press of Florida, $24.95