Miami, scene of the crimes

The heart of the American nightmare can be located somewhere between Miami and the Florida Keys. Robert Hanks investigates; CRIME
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The Independent Culture
IN RECENT years, Florida has had something of an image problem. There was a time when most people's idea of the place was based on vague images of orange blossom and flamingos in the sunset, and Frank Sinatra singing "High Hopes" in an Art Deco hotel on Miami Beach. It was a place where couples went on their honeymoons and old folks retired. Perhaps the world had some notions about it being a place where you found alligators and hurricanes and Mafiosi taking their summer breaks, but mostly it seemed like a fairly nice place.

Things started to change in the early Eighties. First there was Brian De Palma's remake of the gangster classic Scarface, which shifted the action to Miami and gave us Al Pacino as a Cuban druglord, wearing unpleasant white suits and black shirts and burying his face in huge drifts of white powder. Then came Miami Vice - Don Johnson prancing around in Gucci and Armani and partially coherent storylines based around beautiful women, fast cars and prolonged bursts of gunfire. And somewhere along the way a whole raft of crime novelists - Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Charles Willeford, James Hall, Edna Buchanan, Laurence Shames - made Florida their location of choice for tales of weird and gruesome murder. So that it has become, unwittingly, the heart of the American nightmare: more fictional blood is shed here, more imaginary corpses are decapitated, more hypothetical psychotic Cubans unleashed on the streets, than in any other state of the Union.

To be accurate, this isn't all of Florida we're talking about: up north in Jacksonville, the state capital, life has been more or less unscathed by this notional crimewave, and over west in Tallahassee is pretty much virgin soil. It's in south Florida that all this un-pleasantness is supposed to happen - some of it down in the Everglades and the Florida Keys, most of it up around Miami.

There are a lot of good reasons why this should be so -high on the list is the fact that, as the novelist and journalist Carl Hiaasen makes clear in Carl Hiaasen's Miami, broadcast tonight on Channel 4, south Florida is a very violent place. But even before the real violence started, sometime back in the Seventies, writers and film-makers were attracted to Florida by its geography. The state's position at the bottom right of America, a frail appendage poking out into the Caribbean, is loaded with significance - it's an extremity, and a place for people in extremis. This isn't just a recent phenomenon - the most celebrated statement of the idea is John Huston's 1948 film Key Largo, taken from a play by Maxwell Ander-son. The opening titles fill you in on the relevant topography: "At the southernmost point of the United States are the Florida Keys, a string of small islands held together by a concrete causeway. Largest of these remote coral islands is Key Largo."

Here, young war-widow Lauren Bacall and her father-in-law Lionel Barrymore are tucked away in his old hotel, nursing their grief. Along comes disillusioned ex-soldier Humphrey Bogart, on the run from an America which has failed to live up to its wartime promise; and along, too, comes declining gangland emperor Edward G Robinson, seeking a place to hide on his way to Cuba. Anderson rather hammers you over the head with the symbolism: all these people are, in their different ways, distancing themselves from society, and Florida is the perfect expression of that.

The idea of the Keys as last refuge from civilisation has been continued in the present day by James Hall, author of a series of thrillers (including Under Cover of Daylight, Squall Line and Mean High Tide) featuring the laconic Thorn, a fisherman who hangs out on the Keys for Bogartian reasons. But you don't have to go all the way down to the Keys to experience the same sense of isolation: remember Some Like It Hot (1959), in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lem-mon slap on the pancake and slip into frocks to hide from the Mafia in Miami? There are other reasons why the film is set there - it's a well-known millionaire's playground, and a notorious hang-out for hoodlums (Al Capone had a permanent suite - Suite 13 - at the Biltmore Hotel; Meyer Lansky, the original for the Jewish gangster Hyman Roth in Godfather Part II, retired there). But their main reason for going there is that it's a long way away from anywhere else - and, of course, it's sunny.

The weather is another reason why Florida makes a good location for criminal activities. It's mild enough in the winter, but in summertime things can turn nasty. On the one hand there are the hurricanes: Key Largo is dominated by the memory of one - the great hurricane of 2 September 1935, when 800 people were killed and an entire train swept into the sea - and the approach of another. The storm crashes over the hotel at the film's climax to let everybody know just how fragile their hold on life is, and to give them a notion of what being cut off from the world might really mean. And, on the other hand, there is the oppressive heat.

The sense of Florida as a pressure-cooker comes over again and again in Florida crime stories. If you want to read a real-life description, try Norman Mailer's study of the Presidential conventions of 1968, Miami and the Siege of Chicago. Mailer waxes lyrical about the horrors of Miami Beach's climate - the effect, he suggests, of building a city on top of what was once jungle: "Is it so dissimilar from covering your poor pubic hair with adhesive tape for 50 years?" he asks (don't try to answer). The thermometer readings are not necessarily outlandish, but the humidity can be unbearable; Mailer comes up with a particularly Maileresque image to bring this home: "The sensation of breathing ... was not unlike being obliged to make love to a 300-pound woman who has decided to get on top. Got it?" If that doesn't work, imagine making love to Norman Mailer - frightening, isn't it?

But while Florida is a good place to let your pathetic fallacy run riot, the main reason why it attracts so much fictional crime is the vast amount of the real-life stuff floating about. It's no coincidence that Florida crime fiction is often written by journalists - Edna Buchanan is one: a Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter on the Miami Herald and author of an autobiography (The Corpse Had a Fam-iliar Face), and two novels (Container Under Pressure - another Miami metaphor - and Miami, It's Murder) based on her experiences. Hiaasen (in the news because Demi Moore is reportedly earning $15m for starring in the film of his book Striptease) is another. His comedy thrillers are eccentric confections - murders committed with stuffed marlin, serial wheelchair theft - but he plays down the extent of his invention: "It would be nice," he says, "if I could tell you that all these novelists have vivid imaginations and dream stuff up. I'd love to take credit for some of the stuff in my books. It's unfortunately based on stuff that happens."

Florida no longer has the highest murder rate in the US, but it does have the highest overall crime rate, and the highest figures for violent crime. Hiaasen feels strongly that potential visitors should know about this - hence tonight's film, a brief, crime reporter's view of the city, designed not to put tourists off, but to show them what they're letting themselves in for.

His stance is not popular, you would guess, with the local tourist authorities. A series of murders of European tourists a couple of years ago sent holiday bookings plummeting, and the Greater Miami Conven-tion and Visitors Bureau is still trying to forget about it. Their brochures don't point you to the downtown coin dealers where Alec Baldwin had his fingers sliced off with a machete in Miami Blues (1990). They prefer to concentrate on the Art Deco hotels and the nascent local film industry (Schwarzenegger made True Lies here; Stallone made The Specialist).

Not all their efforts to calm your fears are effective - you can decide for yourself whether it's reassuring that they put out press releases em-phasising a series of police initiatives to stop tourist-directed crime. Some of these initiatives have scary acro-nyms such as RID (Robbery Intervention Detail) and TRAP (Tourist Robbery Abatement Program); others have more positive ones, like TOPP (Tourist Oriented Police Program) and STARS (Sunny Isles Tourists and Residents - logically it ought to be SITARS, but presumably Indian stringed instruments didn't provide quite the spin they wanted). Another initiative, TRIP, is designed to help tourists to find their way about without looking at maps. They don't say this in the press release, but reading a map in a car is regarded as a dangerous practice in Miami - it lets people know you are new in town, and probably loaded with lots of valuable things like travellers' cheques and cameras.

The actual reasons for the crime are the same as the symbolic ones. For a start, there's the weather. The warm winters attract the kind of people robbers like - tourists, rich people, retired people (remember Gold-en Girls? That was Miami). It also attracts people who don't have anywhere to go - you can survive without a roof over your head. And as Hia-asen says, "Up north in the wintertime violent crime tends to slow down - in the wintertime, people are indoors. Down here there's no slow season: the climate is conducive to year-round homicide."

Still, he adds, weather alone can't account for it: "I mean, California has a great climate, Arizona has a great climate; but we have disproportionately weird elements." Miami isn't just a pressure-cooker: it's also a melting- pot. Because of its remoteness and the way it dangles temptingly from the US towards the Caribbean and Latin America, it is a great place to smuggle drugs - they don't brag about it, but Florida had crack cocaine before anyone else - and a magnet for immigrants. There are the Cubans who came over after Castro's revolution - many of whom are members of anti-Communist militias, with their own illicit arsenals.

In the late Seventies, Castro open-ed the prisons and threw out the convicts, creating a new wave of immigrants, the Marielitos - Tony Montana, the Pacino character in Scarface was one of them. More recently there have been the Haitians and the Nicaraguans. And all of these are rubbing shoulders with the native Americans, the Florida rednecks, the Jewish grandmothers, the wise guys and the millionaires.

It's an exotic blend, and you can see what attracts creators of fiction: the glamour, the weirdness in Miami Vice and Elmore Leonard, they are real enough (though you doubt that policemen ever wore suits quite like Crockett and Tubbs) - fiction just presents them in a concentrated form. If Florida didn't exist, somebody would have had to invent it. The fact that it does has merely saved everybody a lot of time and trouble.

! `Carl Hiassen's Miami' is on Channel 4 at 9.30pm tonight.