tAMPA — When Tim Dorsey created Serge Storms, he didn't mean to write a series of comic novels about a serial killer.
"I wanted to make him this very eccentric, very intelligent, larger-than-life villain," Dorsey says.
That he did, creating a kind of contemporary Professor Moriarty who delivers outrageous lectures nonstop, wears souvenir Florida T-shirts, drives muscle cars and has a robust sex life.
And then the villain took over. Dorsey's 15th novel about Serge, Pineapple Grenade, will be published Tuesday.
How popular is that lovable psychopath Serge? In an era when publishers are reluctant to pony up for authors to go on book tours, Dorsey's publisher, William Morrow, is sending him out for 60 stops in seven weeks, from Key West to Seattle. The tour will culminate in SergeStock, a seven-day Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Legend that promises fans scavenger hunts, trivia contests and "manic tours" led by Dorsey himself, all of it a benefit for the Friends of the St. Pete Beach Library.
When the group proposed the benefit, Dorsey says, "I was afraid they wouldn't get enough people to cover the cost of me and my family coming on the cruise." But Serge's fans came through. "They got a lot of people. A lot. They're going to make some money."
Serge, whose virtues do not include modesty, wouldn't be surprised. For a fictional character, he evokes a high level of devotion: Just take a gander at Dorsey's website (timdorsey.com) for an array of photos of readers sporting Serge-inspired tattoos. That's commitment, and not the kind Serge is always trying to avoid.
Those readers respond to a unique character born in part out of Dorsey's own obsession with Florida — the history, geography, folklore, news stories, trivia and oddities that make the state what it is. This is an author who signs books at Jimmy Buffett concerts.
"I had all this Floridiana and not enough plot to hang it on," Dorsey says. "Serge is my mouthpiece. He's my personality."
Well, except for the homicide thing. Serge has left a trail of bodies behind him — so many that in Pineapple Grenade, when Serge seeks employment as a spy in Miami, an admiring CIA station chief theorizes he must be a professional hit man because he couldn't have gotten away with so many murders without protection.
Serge is an amateur but very selective, and that's part of his appeal: He only kills people who ask for it. He acts out the suppressed rage we all feel at rude behavior and random cruelty, dispatching the likes of carjackers, political fixers and guys who make Girls Gone Wild-style videos. Serge chooses his victims thoughtfully and soberly — his only chemical indulgence is enough coffee to drain a Starbucks shop. He leaves alcohol and drugs to his cheerfully addled sidekick, Coleman, who will ingest, Dorsey says, "anything."
Serge is also creative about murder. He strives for the unusual; he watches No Country for Old Men and thinks, "I need a device like that." He has a deep sense of scientific curiosity and does the research. Serge has deployed everything from hot tubs to turkey fryers as murder weapons; one of his victims in Pineapple Grenade freezes to death in a Miami hotel room, from the inside out.
How does Dorsey keep such a potentially off-putting character sympathetic? He says, "I'm not really engineering it. I'm just moving Serge and Coleman around. I figure if I'm enjoying myself writing it, readers will enjoy it, too."
Serge's victims and most of his other characters aren't real people, Dorsey says, "but you can be inspired by real people" — who may recognize themselves. In Hammerhead Ranch Motel, published in 2000, Dorsey mentioned a group of Florida politicians who brought back chain gangs, something former Gov. Charlie Crist favored while he was in the state's Senate.
"Crist came to one of my book signings," Dorsey says. "He waited until the end, then came up to get the book signed. He thought it was pretty funny. Then he gave me a bumper sticker."
His signings draw what Dorsey calls a "nonhomogenous crowd."
"I get all age groups. I get lots of nice retirees who have moved to Florida. And then I get some guys who are just out of prison."
He once did a well-attended signing in Starke, a north central Florida town surrounded by correctional institutions. "The prison librarians told me, 'All the guards read your books, and all the prisoners read your books, for totally different reasons.' "
He has also had Sunday school teachers tell him they feel guilty reading his books — but they laugh anyway. "If you can get that really, really deep laughter from people, that's your audience."
His early books were marketed as mysteries, Dorsey says. "I lost a lot of readers initially because the books weren't what they expected. Luckily (novelist Carl) Hiaasen was already out then, so some people were familiar with the idea of the nonmystery mystery from Florida that's whacked out."
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Dorsey's nonmystery mysteries aren't whodunits; their underlying structure is the road trip. In each book, Serge has a mission that requires travel, usually at high speeds. In Gator A-Go-Go, for example, he's making a documentary about the history of spring break; in Electric Barracuda, he's doing research for his blog on "fugitive tourism":
"We've got everything a murderous desperado could want: great weather, cool drinks, a million trailer parks, plus pharmacies and bank branches on every corner. Those qualities also attract retirees, often to the same place, in a naturally occurring sitcom."
Dorsey says his basic process for developing a book is to make "a map of places I want to visit and put this crazy guy behind the wheel." Then, armed with cameras and notebooks, he sets out on his own road trips, which have taken him to seemingly every swamp and strip mall, high-rise luxury hotel and roadside historical marker in Florida.
Dorsey was born in Indiana, but his family moved to Florida while he was still a baby. He grew up in Riviera Beach, a town just north of West Palm Beach; his family moved to New Hampshire while he was in high school.
"I've always written," he says, "although it wasn't any sort of environmental thing. But my family had this old manual typewriter, and when I was about 12 years old I started writing these essays. They were basically satires, although I didn't know what I was doing."
In high school in New Hampshire, Dorsey was lucky enough to get one of those life-altering teachers. "I wasn't a reader yet. I hated the curriculum; I always chose the book with the thinnest spine."
But he brought some of his essays in for his teacher to read. "He was a child of the '60s. He read them and said, 'You need to read this' and handed me Catch-22," Joseph Heller's satirical masterpiece about war and bureaucracy.
"That changed my life."
Dorsey says he immediately created a "life plan to become a novelist." First, he would ask his teacher for more books. Then he would join the staff of his high school newspaper, then his college paper, then a "real newspaper." It was, he reasoned, the best way to learn the fundamentals of writing.
He followed the plan. He worked on the paper at Auburn University, then became a reporter at the Alabama Journal in Montgomery, Ala., for several years before taking a job at the Tampa Tribune in 1987.
"I was dying to come back to Florida by then," he says. "When you grow up in a place, you take it for granted."
His work as a reporter kept him on the road, but even on his days off, he says, he would call a buddy and take off down the highway. Even then he was "obsessively" taking notes and photos. "I went looking for the things in my childhood, in pre-Disney days, and a lot of them were gone."
More than a decade as a reporter, copy editor and metro editor at the Tribune provided him with a deep trove of weird Florida materials as well as those writing fundamentals, and he went to work on the final phase of the plan.
His first novel, Florida Roadkill, was published in 1999. Dorsey left the newspaper the day it appeared in bookstores.
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Today, a framed autograph from Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, hangs on the wall above Dorsey's computer, along with the autographs of Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson.
Dorsey's office is a cozy, neat space with a single bookshelf circling the room just below the ceiling, holding what he calls "a sampling" of his library. The walls also display a nautical chart of the lower Florida Keys, "my favorite part of the planet," as well as a vintage poster for the '70s Key West movie 92 in the Shade, signed by star Peter Fonda. Dorsey's writing chair falls immediately into recliner position as soon as he sits down. "I put the keyboard on my lap. Sometimes I almost fall asleep."
The office is on the second story of the South Tampa house where Dorsey lives with his wife, Janine, an editor at tbo.com; their daughters Erin, 15, and Kelly, 13; and a dog and three cats, all shelter rescues. Dorsey talks proudly of his daughters' academic and athletic achievements and credits his wife's artful hand for the house's casual but elegant tropical decor. "My souvenirs are stored out of sight," he says, offering a glimpse of a cabinet crammed with tiki figures and other oddments.
Dorsey says he's looking forward to the book tour. "I am probably the cheapest person to put on the road. I'm really a source of entertainment in New York" in his publisher's offices. Unlike authors who like limos and posh hotels, Dorsey prefers a rental car — road trip! — and Motel 6. "I love Waffle House."
He'll begin his tour in the Tampa Bay area, with stops in several local libraries and independent bookstores.
"There are certain libraries I go back to because we've become friends over the years. Until I had about five books out, I didn't draw a crowd.
"The libraries would put out 50 chairs, and I'd talk to three or four people. But they were so nice, I really enjoyed it. How can you not love it when someone says, 'I just love what you write!' "
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.