Despite the endless streams of tourists flowing through Key West, it's still a small town. In his new novel, American Tropic, Thomas Sanchez turns that small town into a stiflingly claustrophobic, nerve-wracking setting for a creepy tale of Florida noir.
Sanchez is a California native but has long been a Key West denizen; his third novel, Mile Zero (1989), was set there. As he did in that novel, Sanchez peoples American Tropic not with the town's visitors — the tourists who love Cayo Hueso so much they're loving it to death — but with characters whose families have deep roots on the island.
One of them is Luz Zamora, a fifth-generation descendent of Cubans who came to Key West to roll cigars in the 19th century. Luz is a tough, no-nonsense undercover police detective. The harassment she takes about being a lesbian from her partner, Moxel, a kind of Conch Barney Fife, rolls right off, but beneath her facade she's a woman gripped by grief. A cancer survivor herself, she is watching her younger daughter, 14-year-old Nina, wage a losing struggle with leukemia.
Luz's partner, Joan, is sweetly supportive, but Joan's brother, Noah, is another story. He was a lawyer specializing in environmental cases until he was disbarred for "going ballistic in the courtroom."
"I was prosecuting corporate bastards drilling illegal wells in protected tidelands. Toxic sludge killing off wildlife. ... You know what I always say: speaking the truth will set you on fire," Noah says. His descent into drunken anger after his disbarment has broken up his marriage, and now he spends his days at sea on an old trawler, Noah's Lark, running a pirate radio station that hosts his call-in show for others outraged by environmental depredations. His catch phrase: "Show me your rage."
Someone's rage is on display at the beginning of the Powerboat Championship Race, when the horribly mutilated body of Dandy Randy, a local developer and powerboat racer, is found lashed to a buoy marking the race's route. Soon other bodies turn up — one hanging from the inside of the historic bat tower on Sugarloaf Key, another wrapped in a shrimp boat's nets, yet another dangling from a giant cruise ship's stern, all with their lips sewn shut with fishing line and a red "X" painted on their bellies. And soon stories are circulating about a strange figure seen near the kill sites, someone clad in a head-to-toe wet suit painted with a glowing skeleton.
Back in the 1980s, Luz's father, a homicide detective, tracked down and shot to death a serial killer who called himself Bizango, after an avenger in voodoo lore. Bizango, Luz recalls, thought of himself as "some kind of righteous assassin" — and he wore a full-body skeleton suit.
Sanchez packs his story with thoroughly despicable potential victims, like the shrimper who not only defies the ban on catching and killing endangered sea turtles but shoots dolphins to use as turtle bait. Then there are Big Conch, an insanely egotistical developer who wants to plant the Keys' biggest resort in a bird sanctuary, and his pal Hard Puppy, a slick character who makes his living running a dog fighting ring — and enjoys shooting the dogs that don't make the cut. (Luz takes one of them, a one-eared pit bull named Chicken, away from him at gunpoint.)
The reader might not mourn such victims much, but the pace of the murders and Bizango's seemingly superhuman powers ratchet up the tension. Luz is under pressure from her boss to find the killer with Fantasy Fest, Key West's annual Halloween bacchanalia, fast approaching — with 80,000 drunken revelers in costume (or at least a little body paint) expected, it's no time to have a bloodthirsty skeleton on the loose.
Sanchez has a sure touch with the mangrove swamps and back alleys of his setting, with its community's long-simmering feuds and with skin-crawling images, like a scorpion creeping toward a man's open mouth. Closer to a novella in length than a novel, American Tropic has a fever-dream intensity and a pace as breathless as a steamy island night. It's a much darker route through Key West than Duval Street, but one worth taking if you have the nerve.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.