18 January 2024

The Uses of Mystery part 3: Tim Dorsey

It is probably a sign of old age, but lately I seem to get book recommendations from the New York Times's obits. Depressing as that may be, Tim Dorsey's December 2023 obituary led me to more interesting examples of the uses of our favorite genre, which in Dorsey's hands becomes the capacious satiric receptacle for obsessions and complaints, along with sex, drugs, rock and roll, fart jokes, and digressions on US policy and the CIA.

At least, that's the total for The Maltese Iguana and the opening pages of No Sun Screen for the Dead. But as Dorsey racked up 22 other novels, I am sure he found lots more of the Sunshine State to include.

In fact, that's certain. Dorsey, a former Tampa Tribune reporter, has not only a genuine love for his home state, but an encyclopedic knowledge of its history, geography and culture. Much of which he gifts to Serge A. Storms, his central character, who operates with his drugged up and alcoholic wingman, Coleman, a man with an uncanny ability to regain sentience at crucial moments.

These occur in rapid succession because the charismatic and voluble Serge combines features of two favorite mystery/ thriller protagonists: the lone avenger/ protector and the serial killer, an unusual combination that works for Serge. He's a one man consumer protection bureau, out for grifters, unscrupulous sales people, pandemic profiteers, and computer criminals, with a special look out for elderly victims.

Totally on the side of the angels is Serge, with just a little weakness for the extra-judicial punishments that, by the end of The Maltese Iguana, have left a body count to rival Hamlet. But don't expect blood spatter and weapons a la Dexter. Besides his knowledge of the weirder aspects of Florida history, Serge has science at his fingertips.

I won't spoil future reading pleasure with the details, but death by ping pong balls was never on my radar, and while the cause of the so called Havana Syndrome has eluded all experts, Serge not only knows the instrument but has his own version. 

In The Maltese Iguana, Serge and Coleman are the spine of the story, flitting in and out of the action while running The Underbelly Tours of the Florida Keys. Around them are two story lines, one, a CIA op in Honduras with a lively cast of wannabe militia types, an honest Honduran cop, and a CIA bodyguard in a sequined cowgirl costume. And two, and only slightly less flamboyant, the trials and tribulations of Reevis, an honest reporter in Miami.

How these story lines merge in a spectacular denoument involving the culminating shoot of a major motion picture is a thing of beauty, and Dorsey gets high marks for plotting as well as his marvelous titles. Who can resist monikers like Florida Roadkill, Atomic Lobster, or The Tropic of Stupid

The latter could, I suspect, be the title for any of his novels, for Serge, and in Iguana, Reevis, too, inveigh against stupidity in many forms, including foreign policy, the degradation of the press, corporate consultants, rampant marketing, and crowd think. 

The lively mystery is an armature for Dorsey's satiric observations, and genuine bad guys like the dubious "Colonel" come in for vicious caricatures. There are no shades of gray in this moral realm, and that is rather odd, given that Serge, himself, is equal parts White Knight and serial killer.  

But Serge is perhaps an acquired taste. While admiring the construction and the flamboyant prose of The Maltese Iguana, I did not really take to the protagonist, who, to my mind, is an irritating motor mouth of slender social skills. 

Still, conviction and energy count for much in prose, and Tim Dorsey has both in abundance, along with a lot of strong opinions and evidence of buried malfeasance. In his hands, mystery easily stretches to satire and social critique without ever losing its footing.



The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.


The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books at:



The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is available at: 


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