Caught in the Headlights

As a long-time newspaper reporter and editor who's worked all over Florida, Tim Dorsey has written and read stories about the most bizarre crimes and stupid human tricks the Sunshine State has to offer. For some reason he still chooses to live here.

"You were born here, it's beautiful, you love it, but you know you should leave," says Dorsey, who grew up in Riviera Beach. "Intelligence says that you should, but you can't. You're caught in the headlights."

The predicament he describes is the one animals experience before being run over by cars. Only two critters have run-ins with vehicular traffic in the book Florida Roadkill, but metaphorically speaking all of the zany characters in Dorsey's first novel are fodder for the state's wildly churning wheels. In his humorous whodunit, Dorsey sketches the characters and their surroundings in plain yet sarcastic prose. Bal Harbour trust-fund baby and wannabe ladies' man Johnny Vegas, for instance, is described as "bronzed, built, and smelling like a whorehouse. Because he was wearing Whorehouse Cologne…."

While Johnny's running his Cigarette boat, he comes across two dead bodies floating near the Keys, an incident that ties him to a dozen or so over-the-top characters. There's Wilbur Putzenfus, a "senior claims denier" at the Family First HMO in Tampa; Florida Cable News correspondent Blaine Crease, a former stuntman who misreports the day's events; and a gay-bashing congressman, who's also a private detective and a radio DJ.

Dorsey, who retired from his job as a news editor at the Tampa Tribune a couple months ago after he solidified a book deal with publisher Morrow, says the congressman in particular is a "composite idiot" based on "the yahoo fringe of Tampa Bay." Up to half of the seemingly implausible incidents in the book were actually inspired by real-life people, including a scene in which a woman crashes her husband's airboat into a grocery store.

"I just had all of these places and experiences that I wanted to incorporate into a book," Dorsey says of fiction-writing. "At first I didn't think of it fitting into the Florida wacky-crime subgenre."

Remembering the "write what you know" edict, however, convinced him to follow in the footsteps of the genre's best writers, notably Carl Hiaasen, James W. Hall, and John D. MacDonald. "I'm a huge fan of those guys," he says, "and because I worked in newspapers, it was the material that I knew."

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John Ferri