Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tom Corcoran - Key West Chronicler

If you’ve ever been to Key West, you know that it’s one of the more colorful Florida locales. And no one captures that local color quite like Tom Corcoran. With a photographer’s eye, Corcoran gives readers a glimpse into the off-beat heart of the city that has captivated him for almost forty years.

An Ohio native, Corcoran joined the Navy in the 60s and was sent to Key West for an eight-week training course. He fell in love with the island and its people. “It was so fascinating to an Ohio boy,” he says. “The sights, sounds and smells were just glorious.” When he finished his naval stint, Corcoran returned to Key West. He took a job tending bar at The Chart Room where, in 1971, he met a young musician who had just arrived in town. Jimmy Buffett stopped in for a drink, and Corcoran welcomed him with a beer “on the house.” This was the start of a lifelong friendship. Buffett and Corcoran shared many memorable experiences. One found its way into Corcotan’s third novel, Bone Island Mambo, which includes a scene that took place on Buffett’s boat. Corcoran even co-wrote two songs that became Buffett classics: “Fins” and “Cuban Crime of Passion.”

Inspired by the sights and scenes around him, Corcoran decided to try his hand at photography. “I read books on photography and gave myself assignments,” he explains. “For example, I’d photograph only green things for a week. That way I’d learn to see all shades of green. Now I can look at a bush and see twenty different greens.” He soon became good enough to do some freelancing. His photographs were featured on seven of Jimmy Buffett’s album covers as well as on the book jackets of writers like James W. Hall, Winston Groom, and Les Standiford. 

By 1980, Corcoran’s life began to take a different turn “I had a wife and a kid, and I needed a full-time job. My son was at that impressionable age, and Key West was filling up with impressions.” So Corcoran moved his family to Fairhope, Alabama, where he worked as an advertising and magazine photographer until his wife’s death in 1986. He suddenly found himself a single father with a rambunctious 15-year-old, so when he was offered a job as editor of Mustang Monthly, an automotive magazine, he moved back to Florida and settled in Lakeland.  According to Corcoran, “Writing about (Ford) Mustangs taught me to spot details readers respond to, and editing the technical stuff to make it more interesting really helped my writing.” 

In 1998, Corcoran made the transition from non-fiction to fiction with the publication of his first novel. The Mango Opera marked the debut of Alex Rutledge, a Key West freelance photographer who is occasionally coerced into photographing crime scenes for the city police and county sheriff. Corcoran wanted Rutledge “to be someone typical of the Key West I loved, a vehicle for its personality to come through.” He also gives readers a sampling of the colorful cast of characters that people the Keys. “Key West is an island of characters. Many are genuine characters, and those who aren’t have manufactured characters for themselves. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody has a support team. Nobody’s a star in Key West.” 
The Mango Opera was soon followed by five other Alex Rutledge mysteries. Corcoran credits his Key West days with providing a wealth of story material. “I spent a lot of time listening to the stories of old Conch fishermen at bars on Duval Street, and I use these in my novels." He also drew inspiration from experiences closer to home. He got the idea for his 2005 offering, Air Dance Iguana, while sitting on his dock. "I was looking out at the water, and I wondered if  anyone had written about a murder victim being hung from a boat davit.  I couldn’t find it in any other book, so I used it as my opening scene.” He keeps his readers guessing by throwing out false clues and real clues at the same time, “like a video game on paper.” The story, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch, “will take you away to Margaritaville without wasting away your time.”

The sixth Alex Rutledge mystery, Hawk Channel Chase, was released in hardcover in 2009, then in trade paperback and Kindle download in 2010. It has three or four subplots, and Sam Wheeler (Alex’s fishing guide friend) is fundamental to the story.

Corcoran is already at work on his seventh Alex Rutledge mystery, as yet untitle The story embroils Alex in two cases, one in Key West, the other in Sarasota. And two dodgy street characters created for his second and third mysteries, Dubbie Tanner and Wiley Fecko, will team up to form a private investigations company that proves invaluable to Rutledge’s efforts.

Corcoran has also ventured into the publishing arena as co-owner of The Ketch and Yawl Press, a small company that specializes in non-fiction books about the Florida Keys. In 2006, Ketch and Yawl released Jimmy Buffett: The Key West Years, Corcoran’s compilation of photos and vignettes about Buffett’s life from the 1970s throughout the past several years.  It’s a must-read for all Parrotheads and anyone who is nostalgic for the old Key West. In 2007, Corcoran released Key West in Black and White, a collection of over 160 vintage black-and-white photos. The two most recent releases are fresh editions of existing titles. Undying Love is Ben Harrison’s study of perhaps the weirdest true crime case in Keys history. And The Railroad That Died at Sea tells of Henry Flagler’s construction of train rails to Key West a century ago.

Most recently, Corcoran has returned to songwriting, collaborating on six tunes with Florida-based folk singer John Frinzi for his 2009 CD, “Shoreline.” The title song is derived from a long poem Corcoran wrote while in the Navy. The two artists continue to write new songs for Frinzi’s next release. In 2010, Corcoran assembled a 40-minute high-definition DVD with 400 recent color photographs of Key West and an instrumental sound track featuring Frinzi’s acoustic guitar and the steel pan of John Patti. It's like taking a trip to the Keys without leaving home.

The ease with which Corcoran moves between fiction and non-fiction is no small feat. But it’s easy to see why his books have been so successful. All share one fundamental quality: an abiding respect for the reader. “I never disrespect the intelligence of my readers,” Corcoran says. “I know they’re smart or they wouldn’t be reading in the first place.” 

To find out more about Tom Corcoran’s books, visit his official website at

Next: Claire Matturro - Sarasota Sleuth


  1. Creativity has no shortage in Florida, and here is yet another Florida writer with such an interesting background, and now I'm intrigued about his novels. Thanks so much for keeping updates on writers who call Florida home!

  2. Ditto Bria's comment, adding: "Well-done!"