Bob Morris is the author of the Caribbean-themed mysteries featuring Zack Chasteen, former Miami Dolphins linebacker and ex-con (wrongly convicted), who becomes an unwilling detective to save his own skin in the series opener, Bahamarama. An “edgy debut novel,” is how Publishers Weekly described that book. Booklist was also impressed, noting that “Morris knows how to put some bounce in his writing.”
Since that debut, Morris has written four more Chasteen novels, his most recent being the 2010 Baja Florida, about which Booklist lauded its “mixture of humor and mystery.” His earlier Bermuda Schwartz was dubbed “a ripping good yarn,” by Booklist, while Jamaica Me Dead prompted a Publishers Weekly reviewer to observe that the “tropical backdrop and Zack’s wisecracking commentary make for another crackling whodunit for Morris.”
Bob, I am very happy to welcome you to Scene of the Crime. Please tell us about your connection to the Caribbean islands that you so lovingly evoke in your novels.
As a fourth-generation Floridian, I feel a natural connection to the lower latitudes, especially the Caribbean islands. When I was 15, I spent a summer in Jamaica, up in the hills in a place called Brown’s Town. This was 1965 and a guy named Bob Marley, who grew up just down the road, had just come up with his first album. It was called “rock steady” music then, a precursor to reggae. I got a copy of the album and wore the grooves out. The music, the people, the water, the lovely heat, the rum — it grabbed me. And it has never let go. Somewhere down the road I became editor of Caribbean Travel & Life magazine and in my tenure there I visited most of the islands down that way. It was while walking the pink sand beach on Harbour Island — I was there to research a story for the magazine — that I came up with the idea of a series of novels, each set on a different island. I went back to my cottage, started writing, and the hero, Zack Chasteen, just started talking. I flew back to Florida, quit my job as editor, and started writing books. Of course, there were a lot of bumps in the road along the way — still are — but that’s the bumpless version.
What things about the Caribbean make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
A lot of scoundrels wind up in the Caribbean. It’s where people go to escape. It’s a civilized place, but there’s a lawless air about it, too, a sense that anything can happen at any time. Each island is so vastly different from the next island. You can be sitting on one island that is distinctly British, and the next island over, just a few miles away, is distinctly French. And then the one beyond that is Dutch. And one beyond that a total mash-up. Lots of folklore and superstitions and weird politics. And the language, of course, is lyrical.
Did you consciously set out to use the Caribbean as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
When character (the hero) meets place that creates conflict. So yes, most definitely, the location is every bit as much a character in my books as Zack Chasteen and the cast of ne’er-do-wells he encounters. One reason I set my books in the islands is because when I visit them to write a feature story for a magazine, that story can only be about 2,500 words. I have to leave out sooooooo much good stuff. About folklore, or food, or politics and the day-to-day life. All the material I forage, it winds up in the books.
All depends. My first book, Bahamarama, was set mostly on Harbour Island, which is only three miles long and a mile wide and I didn’t feel like I could fictionalize specific places/names on it. And because it is so small and because I know it fairly well, it was easy enough to get it pretty much right. But in the second book, Jamaica Me Dead, I made up towns and street names and all kinds of stuff because Jamaica is quite a large island and I felt it gave me the space to do that. In the end, it’s all a matter of deciding what serves the story best and going with that.
How does Zack Chasteen interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Zack?
Chasteen, is a seasoned sailor, boat guy and all-around island man so he is familiar with most of the places where he winds up. Still, he is often a fish out of water, especially say, when he is on a cruise ship, which was the setting for A Deadly Silver Sea. I gave him a sidekick, Boggy, who claims to be the last living Taino Indian. The Taino were the people who greeted Columbus upon his arrival and then, within a couple hundred years, they had disappeared. Boggy is Zack’s link to the mysteries of the Caribbean — its voodoo, its legends. Like all good sidekicks, there’s the yin-yang thing going on. Zack is straightforward, impulsive and goes by his gut. Boggy is more cerebral and mystical. They spat like an old married couple.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
The Caribbean islands have their own literary community and I am not part of that. I am an outsider writing about the islands and that is always the way it will be. That said, the books have been embraced by lots of island folk, especially in Jamaica and the Bahamas, and I like to think it’s because they are fairly authentic and give a glimpse of the islands that is too often glossed over by the cruise ship mentality.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Yeah, there have been a few. Most notable was in the third book, Bermuda Schwartz. There’s a scene in which I write about Zack gazing out over a lovely cove with brilliant clear water and lots of seabirds — gulls and pelicans — dive-bombing the water. A few months after the book came out, I heard from a reader in Bermuda who praised the book but said: “We don’t have pelicans in Bermuda.” I checked it out and he was right, of course. They don’t have pelicans in Bermuda. But I have seen them in so many other island places that I just naturally migrated a fictional colony to Bermuda. Let’s put it this way: In a perfect world, Bermuda deserves pelicans.
Of the Caribbean novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
My favorite passages focus on Florida, which is really a part of the islands. Here’s one from Baja Florida. It takes place early in the book when Zack Chasteen is driving south to Miami and looking out on more of the mindless development that has become part of the Florida landscape. He goes into a long rant about developers and then….
“Besides, generations of Floridians have been raging and to what good? The thirty percent of us who vote still elect county commissioners who buddy-up to developers and lack the foresight of a flea. And the legislature, populated largely by realtors who fancy themselves statesmen, provides ongoing evidence that everything all the other states think about us yahoos down here might well be true: It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity.
“Perhaps it really is better just to marvel over the ongoing spectacle of Florida, do what you can to save your little part of it, and hope for the best.
“If we’ve succeeded at nothing else, then at least we have succeeded in out-weirding California. Really, there ought to be a cable news channel that is all Florida, all the time. Chronically botched elections, astronaut/hitwomen wearing adult diapers, and Burmese pythons taking over the Everglades. Condo commandos, world-record shark attacks, and a critical mass of trailer trash.
“Our peculiar peninsula is the original Dysfunction Junction. Give the U.S.A. a good shake and all the loose parts roll down our way.
“Yes, the road to hell passes straight through Florida. Grab a chaise lounge, kick back and enjoy the parade.”
Oh jeez, what a long-long list. John D. MacDonald, of course, along with Robert Parker (for the snappy dialogue) and Elmore Leonard (for the loveable bad guys) and Charles Willeford and James Cain and, you know, the usual suspects. I am also a big fan of Don Winslow and I just recently started reading Thomas Perry, so I have to take some time and read all his stuff now. As for their influence in the use of place, I would first point to MacDonald, who set some of his stories in the islands. And Travis McGee, being a former football player and a boat guy, certainly lent some DNA to Zack Chasteen.
What’s next for your Zack?
Zack Chasteen is taking a trip to the Cayman Islands. Chaos ensues.
Bob, thanks again for taking the time to regale Scene of the Crime with tales of the Caribbean.
For more information on Bob Morris, visit his author homepage.