Night at Key West by Craig A. Hart is an exciting new direction from this well-established author. As with his other series, the Serenity Thrillers and the SpyCo Novellas, there is plenty of action, compelling characters, and rock-solid writing.
But Key West is special. What makes it so? I offer a quick list of reasons for this statement, and examples that I expect will give credence to my point.
Let’s begin with the setting. Key West is, of course, part of the Florida Keys, and as such is a part of the Sunshine State. But don’t tell that to the residents of the island. Many of the locals have never set foot on the soil of any place else. Why would they? They’re in paradise! Assuming that the air in paradise is thick and oppressive, dictating what will get done, and determining the pace at which it will happen. The air of Key West and the island itself are robust and important characters in the narrative. This is an astutely conceived and an expertly used device.
Another skillfully developed element of the story is the time frame. This is the Key West of the 1930’s. As the son of a man who came of age in that period I can tell you that this was a different time. You will, of course, reply with some variation of the “Duh!” sentiment. At the surface that does sound like a rather inane statement but consider: The things that people ate and drank then are often still familiar to us yet simultaneously almost always a bit different. Coca-Cola is enjoyed, but it is never referred to as “Coke.” The shorter name was not used until after the period of the story. Maxwell House coffee was an old favorite by the 30’s, while other items which would be commonplace during The Great Depression are mostly forgotten now – though some make their way into the book, adding further authenticity and charm to its telling.
Next, we should consider the frame of reference of the main character and narrator, Simon Wolfe. Like most of the people populating the novel, Wolfe is a “conch,” a Key West native, born and bred. Unlike the others, however, Wolfe left the Key to pursue his higher education in New England. The years he spent away from paradise, combined with the well-presented nuances of his natural personality give him a perspective on the place that is just enough different from that of the many characters in the story for whom Key West represents the boundaries of the known world, that it allows him to see things in ways they couldn’t, going places mentally their minds just never would. It is a trait which serves him well in both of his chosen endeavors, working as a private investigator and seeking to make his way as a writer.
The latter brings us to the next item on our laundry list. This one truly separates NaKW from others in the current pool of mysteries, and that is Hart’s use of Ernest Hemingway as a character.
Anyone who has followed Craig Hart’s work may have seen prior hints that he has an affinity for the man from Oak Park (via the world). One need look no further than the title of his collection of short fiction, The Girl Who Read Hemingway. But I doubt anyone was prepared for the degree to which he would channel that respect and knowledge to present us with a living, breathing Ernest Hemingway. I don’t know how many people still living had the pleasure of speaking with Papa in person, but I would be willing to lay a very heavy wager that there would be nothing in Hart’s presentation of the Nobel laureate’s behavior, temperament, generosity, ferocity, impulsivity, even his unique speech pattern that would run counter to their memory.
There is one last important element of the book that I need you to see and understand. You’ll encounter it twice in the book. I’ll tell you about the second time first.
When Hemingway learns that the private detective Simon Wolfe also has literary ambitions, he offers to look at Simon’s work. His verdict: “You got it, kid.” Imagine Wolfe’s mind at that moment! As a writer, I can think of few thrills that would surpass that four-word endorsement.
But you don’t have to wait until that scene, and Papa’s proclamation, to experience the “got it” factor. That will happen on page one, as you start reading Hart’s prose. This is a writer who has worked very hard to master his craft, make no mistake.
But that legwork was built upon a framework that anyone who has been a reader for any length of time will recognize. It is the same framework you’ve sensed a few other times in your life. We’ve all read a truly great author for the first time and said to ourselves, “Well, that changes everything.”
By this point I believe you might be reading this review thinking that I’m overstating my case. After all, we’re talking about a relatively quick-read period-piece murder mystery! And it is that. It is that, and it works perfectly well on that level. I support that opinion. I encourage it.
Just don’t miss the brilliance that infuses it. Don’t mistake Night at Key West with another escapist romp through the gritty past. Get this book, read it, then wait with the rest of us for Simon Wolfe to return.