a profile and review

Heir Apparent to a Knight Errant

Appeared in Creative Loafing, August 2, 2012

Tom Corcoran

Marshall McLuhan once likened the Sunday New York Times to a warm bath – something to slip into for comfort and pleasure.

We’re borrowing that line to tell you that Tom Corcoran has just run a nice, toasty tub for you. It’s his latest novel, The Quick Adios (Times Six). Prepare yourself to slip into the relaxing and refreshing water.

Click on the cover to order.

Corcoran is one of those writers you impatiently wait for, much like Florida’s other great writers of mysteries, Michael Connelly, Randy Wayne White and Carl Hiaasen (well, his books are sort-of mysteries).

Corcoran’s stories feature an accidental detective named Alex Rutledge. Nominally a photographer in Key West, Rutledge carries the DNA of the late great knight errant, Travis McGee, the hero of those marvelous John D. MacDonald novels that never get old. (I’ve been on a MacDonald tear this summer and even named one of my sons Travis after that great hero.)

Corcoran’s Alex Rutledge is smart, charming, handy, resourceful, and successful with women. In short, he’s everything a man wishes he could be and everything many women wish they could find.

But he’s not perfect, which is one of the reasons we like him so much and why we miss him when he’s gone.

Tom Corcoran is a busy man, considering all of his ventures. So this is only the seventh Rutledge mystery in the 14 years of the series.

Each book adds to the wonderful Key West mosaic Corcoran has created with these terrific novels. There’s never a word out of place, never a description that isn’t perfect, never a story that doesn’t absorb you to the point where you walk to work reading the book, tripping over the sidewalk like a dork. Or wait – maybe that’s just me.

Corcoran with his songwriter partner, John Frinzi

Nevertheless, Rutledge fans slip into the bath as Corcoran describes his knight errant and his latest mission. The saga began with The Mango Opera back in 1998 and has included Gumbo Limbo (1999), Bone Island Mambo (2001), Octopus Alibi (2003), Air Dance Iguana (2005) and Hawk Channel Chase (2010). Corcoran built a strong audience with his first five novels, published with St. Martin’s Press of New York. He also knew how to work the promotions circuit, from his earlier life in the music industry as part of the Jimmy Buffett orbit.

So he decided, starting with Hawk Channel Chase, to cut out the middle man. One of those other hats Corcoran wears is that of book publisher. Years ago, he started a small press that specialized in books about Florida. He republished the 19th Century classic, The Young Wrecker on the Florida Reef by Richard Bache. He published the story of the Key West doctor who kept the mummified body of his true love at his bedside (Undying Love by Ben Harrison). And he kept in print other classics of Florida history.

So why not just bring his Alex Rutledge books onto his Dredgers Lane imprint? And so he has. The novels are beautifully produced – much better than some of the mass-produced books from those New York publishers – and he gets the books into the hands of his readers with a minimum of fuss.

Jimmy Buffett. Photo by Tom Corcoran.

Corcoran’s always working on something. Years ago, he co-wrote songs with Buffett (“Fins,” “Cuban Crime of Passion”) and was part of the loose network of friends who made Buffett feel at home in the Southernmost City in 1971, when he arrived unknown and unwanted by the music industry. Corcoran was one of the people who kept him fed and taught him the lore of their adopted home town of Key West.

These days, Corcoran’s been composing songs with John Frinzi, a Florida singer-songwriter who sings with rare grace and candor. Frinzi’s latest album, Shoreline, is primarily co-written with Corcoran, as is the upcoming as-yet-untitled collection. Corcoran’s worked with the best. He not only wrote with Buffett; he also drafted two screen treatments with Hunter S. Thompson. You know his photography from album covers and book jackets. You might’ve marked time by one of his calendars or cribbed one of the books he printed in a class on Florida history.

But Alex Rutledge fans are an impatient lot. Confidential note to Corcoran: we want more of these great stories. Now, please. The Quick Adios (Times Six) spends a good deal of its plot on mainland Florida, as Rutledge takes a quick-and-easy job to do some commercial photography in Sarasota. There’s some intrigue to the job and a couple of sexy characters that jingle the glands, and things seem well in hand until the first body is found. And then another, and another, until we reach the body count of the title.

By then, Rutledge is back on the Rock, trying to help his friends on the Key West police solve the crimes. And, of course, someone is trying awfully hard to kill Rutledge. Part of the appeal of Alex Rutledge is that he leads the life that we all want to lead.

An artist’s conception of Travis McGee

A generation ago, Travis McGee was our role model. Now it’s Rutledge. We’re a little older, a little wiser, and maybe he’s a little more realistic. But he’s also not really in it for himself. Rutledge is a moral crusader, someone who regards honesty and decency as his personal property. Injustice irritates him immensely, and he betters the world, one day at a time.

Corcoran started at a high level with The Mango Opera 14 years ago. He achieved the sort of literary altitude few attain. No less a master than Michael Connelly referred to one of his books (Air Dance Iguana) as “the reading highlight of the year.” Randy Wayne White said Corcoran’s books are “impossible to put down.” Jim Harrison – that’s right . . . Legends of the Fall Jim Harrison … called another one of Corcoran’s books (Octopus Alibi) “a true marvel of a mystery.”

When your fan base includes some of the best writers in the country, you know you’re doing something right. Corcoran has always been busy doing something – songwriting, publishing, photography. It’s too much to wish for that he’d just do one thing, like writing novels.

Besides, then we’d miss the music.

The Quick Adios is written with such elegance and assurance that we can’t help but be greedy. We want more. We want to luxuriate in this great, warm bath.