This month, Fabulous Florida Writers is pleased to welcome guest blogger Lesley Diehl. She is the author of several cozy mystery novels and several short stories. Her latest novel, Nearly Departed, is part of her Eve Appel Mystery series.
I’ve often said that Florida is a wonderful place for a mystery writer to hide a body given the work of our huge sanitation engineers (think alligators) as well as terrain in which criminals can obscure their handiwork. Some folks, even state residents, find my statement puzzling because their understanding of Florida is shaped only by the coasts, the Keys and the land of the mouse. For those of us who reside inland, in south central Florida, we know another state, one populated with cowboys, cattle, horses, and lots and lots of alligators. Coastal residents would get lost in the maze of canals, swampland, pine, palm and live oak forests, and wonder why anyone would travel to the interior. But like I say, what a place to commit and cover up a crime. Yet it is more than that.
For those of us who do live here, we find a raw beauty in this landscape, and we worry that out-of-control development will destroy it. Florida’s problem has always been water, too much in places, too little in others. The construction of roads and bridges, golf courses, condo and home developments has made water issues of primary importance to Florida’s future. It appears that development and climate change are working together to destroy Florida as it once existed. It is estimated that Florida loses 10 acres of open land every hour to development. Loss of land impacts the distribution and flow of water. For example, water used to flow out of Lake Okeechobee south toward both coasts, but with the construction of east-west highways south of the lake, that flow is impeded. In addition, controlling the outlet of water from the lake into the canals heading toward the coast has resulted in algae growth on both coasts. Coastal dwellers certainly took notice when the thick green algae with its accompanying stink grew feet high in the summer of 2018. The solution to the water issues is complex necessitating the collaboration of many agencies and people—farmers, ranchers, developers, water management agencies, sugar concerns, government and private citizens—those who sometimes have had difficulty in working together in the past. Let’s hope the passage of the recent water bill will help.
And so, what does all of this have to do with writing murder mysteries? Those Florida writers who set their mysteries on the coast appeal to readers who love the Florida scene—as they know it. Some readers have recently come to enjoy mysteries located in Florida’s heartland, the land of alligators and cowboys. As one who loves using this setting for my work, I worry that the impact of development on my area will remove what is best about rural Florida, its contrast with the rest of the state. Until recently it has been easy for us rural folks to ignore all those high-rise condos being built on the coast. We only encounter them when we travel out of our area. But, as the protagonist of the Eve Appel mysteries, has noted, the coastal development is infringing on our way of life. Mud Bog (see Mud Bog Murder) contests with big trucks churning up mud, water, plants and wild life bring the promise of entertainment and temporary jobs to our area, but they also leave a destroyed habitat long after the event is past, making breeding and nesting difficult for the species who lived there.
As Eve drives the route from her home in Sabal Bay (think Lake Okeechobee area) to West Palm and then down to the Keys to visit friends and her grandmother, she notes how widening the road has removed the expanses of water, making it necessary for water fowl to feed and breed elsewhere. The vegetation at the sides of the road has changed also. Instead of the sabal palms which grow everywhere in Florida’s heartland, now the roadside has become more manicured, planted with sod and what are deemed more beautiful, plants carefully landscaped. Is it more pleasing to look at? Perhaps, but it also represents loss of a wildness that makes many of us yearn for the past.
I don’t want to suggest that I mourn for the loss of the old Florida for a selfish reason. I don’t just want the tangled mazes of swamp and vegetation as a place to get rid of a body. That’s silly. But my writing like those of others who use rural Florida as a setting would lose its tone and atmosphere because they form the backdrop of a special place and one that can be lost forever if we proceed with homogenizing the Florida experience. Those of us writing in this wild place want to convey the sense that there is something forever about this side of Florida. Visitors who don’t expect the polished nature of the coast but anticipate another world, one that is filled with a primitive beauty will understand the allure of the land between the coasts and want to protect it. Yes, it’s wonderful driving to more populated areas to dine in a fancy restaurant and gaze at boats bobbing in ocean blue waters (our waters here are tea-colored, their own kind of fascinating hue), but when I sit on my back patio in the evening and watch flock of birds flying overhead, the sun reflecting silver off their white wings, I am taken by that beauty. Even the alligator gliding past on the canal has its place in this world. How could I not want to set a mystery here, not for the dark atmosphere swamps and reptiles bring, but also because there is the splendor of nature here also. The diversity of this land is being lost minute by minute, and I don’t want to see it go. Do you?
Buy link to the newest book in the Eve Apple Mysteries, Nearly Departed: