Tom of all trades

Multi-talented Florida mystery novelist Tom Corcoran keeps his fans happy.

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Tom 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.

Corcoran’s latest novel, The Quick Adios (Times Six), is only the seventh Rutledge mystery in the 12 years of the series. Each book adds to the wonderful Key West mosaic the author has created. 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.

The Rutledge 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 the first five novels, published with St. Martin’s Press. 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.

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 the 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.

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 make you go all a-tingle, 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. 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’s out to better the world, one day at a time.

Corcoran has always worked with the best. Years ago, he co-wrote songs with Buffett (“Fins,” “Cuban Crime of Passion”) and was part of the loose network of friends who made the now-famous performer 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.

These days, Corcoran has 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.

But then Corcoran’s always busy with something. Besides writing with Buffett, he also drafted two screen treatments with Hunter S. Thompson. You may know his photography from album covers and book jackets. You might’ve marked time by one of his calendars or read one of the books he published on Florida history.

Maybe it’s too much to wish for that he’d just do one thing, like writing novels.

But Alex Rutledge fans are an impatient lot.

Corcoran: We want more of these great stories.

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