Mark Lane: Dorsey's twisted tales of Florida crime will be missed

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Nobody knew the Florida roadside and history like Tim Dorsey. And his weird-crime novels were always ready to veer off the highway of a plot line and onto the bumpy backroads of Florida lore.

Tim Dorsey at book signing at Daytona Beach Barnes and Noble in 2013.
Tim Dorsey at book signing at Daytona Beach Barnes and Noble in 2013.

His novels, 26 of them, were perfect excuses for him to get into his car ― for a while a land-barge of a Lincoln Town Car ― and cruise the state talking and signing books at bookstores, public libraries, book clubs, civic centers and bars, any place that invited him. Fifty-six stops the last time I talked to him in 2016. Their number only grew since then.

At each stop, he was taking notes, shooting photos, and pumping readers for local color. Hopefully something outrageous enough to use in the next book. And there was always a next book. Between 1999 and last February, Dorsey turned out a novel a year. He was the hardest-working man in Florida's crime-novel business.

Dorsey died Sunday at his home in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. He was 62.

Author Tim Dorsey busily signing books at Muse Books, DeLand in 2011.
Author Tim Dorsey busily signing books at Muse Books, DeLand in 2011.

A former reporter who had covered both crime and Tallahassee politics ― complementary beats in Florida ― he quit his job as night metro editor for the now-defunct Tampa Tribune in 1999, the year his first book, "Florida Roadkill" was published.

"Florida even looks good collapsing," is its opening sentence.

"Florida Roadkill," with its collection of Florida-man lowlifes and baroque murder techniques, set the tone for the stream of Dorsey novels that followed. Its protagonist, Serge A. Storms, is a psycho killer, sure, but a serial killer with an ethos. He dispenses rough, do-it-yourself justice to evildoers. And he does so creatively, employing a surprising variety of materials. He wasn't much for gunplay. In a later book, "Gator A-Go-Go," for instance, one of his instruments was the Daytona Beach Boardwalk's slingshot ride.

Storms' sidekick, the dim stoner Seymour "Coleman" Bunsen, serves as comic straight man. He'd prod Serge into monologues on Florida geography, history, politics, music and local lore.

Dorsey's first book was grimmer than those that followed. He killed off Coleman in Chapter 25 in a hail of Uzi fire. This was a mistake. Serge and Coleman's stoned on-the-road repartee would be the heart of books to come.

He reintroduced a living Coleman in book seven, "Torpedo Juice," with no convincing explanation, brazening it out for the good of the series. Hooked readers applauded.

If you're unfamiliar with the Dorseyverse you might be forgiven for doubting that books featuring a frenetically cheerful serial killer with poor impulse control who feels compelled to offer gonzo lectures on Florida history and politics would appeal to readers. If so, you've never been to a Dorsey book signing. He could regularly draw a crowd of fans. Many of them completists who read all the earlier installments and were eager for the next.

One appeal of the books, something Dorsey had in common with Carl Hiaasen, with whom he's sometimes compared, and other Sunshine State noire writers, is the theme that Florida is no normal place. It's a hothouse where anything might happen. A place of subtropical beauty that's in the process of being destroyed by forces beyond the control or even comprehension of the people who live there.

These must be dark forces or they wouldn't be wrecking such a place and causing such havoc. So here's a story to show how dark these forces are and tell you about a strange string of events that gave them a comeuppance. Trigger warning: Ugly things will happen in pretty places. Drugs, violence and poor mental hygiene are involved.

It saddens me that this ride has ended and we've reached the last installment. Losing Dorsey and Jimmy Buffett so close together feels like a double hit to Florida popular culture.

Mark Lane is a News-Journal columnist. His email is

Mark Lane
Mark Lane

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Mark Lane: Dorsey's twisted tales of Florida crime will be missed