For Florida mystery writer Tom Corcoran, experience is key 

When writing novels set in Key West, it helps to have hung out with Jimmy Buffett.

Tom Corcoran's novels are so good and his characters so real that the next time you're in Key West -- and really, you need to go -- you'll find yourself cruising the streets, looking for Dredger's Lane.

You won't find it. It exists only in Corcoran's mind and in the memories of his league of devoted readers.

Alex Rutledge lives on Dredger's Lane. He has an outdoor shower in the back yard, a motorcycle in a shed and a lovingly protected Shelby Mustang in the garage. Rutledge is a photographer who becomes an accidental detective every now and then in one of Corcoran's novels. But when you look up from your pitcher of beer at the Half Shell Raw Bar, you might expect to see Rutledge next to you, chasing an oyster with a Corona. He's a guy you wish you knew.

Few writers can lay claim to having created such a vivid, admirable character -- maybe Randy Wayne White with Doc Ford, or Carl Hiassen with his eco renegade, Skink. And certainly, they all owe some DNA to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee.

But of these great Florida fictional creations, Rutledge may be the most likeable, because he's so free of pretension. He's an organic James Bond -- a guy who finds solutions to his problems in things within his reach. He gets into trouble but manages, through his wits, to get out of it as fast as he got in.

Corcoran didn't create the character and start publishing his novels until he was into his fifties. To make it to his platform as a writer, he racked up a lot of life experience first.

He was a Navy officer, an English lit grad from Miami of Ohio, a taco seller, a songwriter (co-authoring a few songs with Jimmy Buffett) and a magazine editor. He wrote two unproduced screenplays with Hunter S. Thompson and then, in the late 1990s, turned to writing fiction.

As an automotive journalist and editor, he'd done a couple of books about cars, but always knew he would return to fiction. He'd studied literature in college alongside writer P.J. O'Rourke and future Esquire editor David Granger. He was just waiting for the right moment and the right story.

Corcoran's first novel, The Mango Opera, introduced Rutledge, an inadvertent gumshoe, a man unable to resist the temptation to find justice in a sinful world. He shares the worldview -- if not the spiffy wardrobe -- of Michael Connelly's L.A. detective, Harry Bosch. Of course, there are also glimmers of McGee, the unforgettable creation of the late, great MacDonald. But Rutledge also shares a lot of the talents and interests of his creator -- and more than just Corcoran's intense knowledge of Shelby Mustangs. But despite comparisons to other fictional detectives, Alex Rutledge is his own man.

Rutledge first came to life in The Mango Opera in 1998 and has since appeared in Gumbo Limbo, Bone Island Mambo, Octopus Alibi and Air Dance Iguana, which Connelly called "the reading highlight of my year," high and valued praise coming from America's most successful mystery novelist.

Then Alex went into hiding. Corcoran also runs a small publishing company and spent the last couple of years marketing books of his photographs, Jimmy Buffett: The Key West Years and Key West in Black and White, a collection of stunning photos we can now imagine as the work of Alex Rutledge.

For his new Rutledge novel, Hawk Channel Chase, Corcoran bypassed his usual publisher and produced it with his Ketch and Yawl Press, based in the Keys. Corcoran can now reach his readers directly -- he knows where they live -- and though a small press means some distribution issues, he's game to deal with the problem.

And he's very happy with Hawk Channel Chase. It's a beautiful, lovingly produced book, and Corcoran's perfectionism is reflected on every page. And, after a longish (four years) layoff, it's nice to have Rutledge back.

"At first, Alex was a whole lot of things I wish I had been," Corcoran says. "I had to draw off of something and what I had experienced. But now, Alex has managed to grow his own life and be his own character and not me."

From the first sentence, when a stranger appears at Alex's screen door, Hawk Channel Chase is off and running. Alex is hired to find a missing girl and at the same time must deal with the insecurities of his friend Marnie, whose longtime boyfriend (and Alex's pal) has also been missing.

To me, experiencing the book is like finding a great steak on your plate. It's so good, you cut small pieces to make the meal last longer. Corcoran's novels are something to savor. You are caught up in the story and want to know how it all works out, but you also don't want it to end.

Corcoran writes his detailed Key West tales -- so specific with geography, you could follow his characters with a street map -- from what he calls his "fortified compound southeast of Lakeland." He's owned a home in Central Florida for years but also kept a place in the Keys. He finally sold his Cudjoe Key home in 2005 and came back to Lakeland. It's a good place to work, he says.

Corcoran's house is piled high with boxes of Jimmy Buffett calendars (oh yes, he produces those too), books and photographs. It's where he wrote his first three novels. The last two were products of Cudjoe Key.

It's been a long road -- through all of these other jobs -- to get where Corcoran always wanted to be. "I always liked to mess around with words and knew that someday I wanted to write a book," he says. "I thought about it first in high school. I remember one night thinking it all through -- what it would be like to be a writer. I must've been 15 or 16."

It just took a while to realize the dream.

In his early years in Key West, it was sometimes tough to eke out a living in that expensive paradise, but he managed. "Either you worked for Southern Bell or you sold tires at Sears," he says. Corcoran wound up doing neither, instead becoming part of the brain trust building the legend of the Chart Room Bar. Corcoran mixed drinks for the local crowd and mixed songs on the sound system to embellish the Chart Room's special, funky atmosphere. "Within two years time, we made the Chart Room the institution in Key West. We had a ball," he says.

It was at that bar where Corcoran served new arrival Jimmy Buffett his first beer in town, beginning a long friendship and collaboration. "The beer was free. That's what Jimmy really liked."

Buffett had been chased out of Nashville by the music-business types who didn't understand him. He found his performing identity in Key West, and Corcoran was there at the start, offering more than just a free beer. "I fed him," Corcoran says. "He had no money. He came home with me for spaghetti one night and he picked up my guitar and started strumming a song he was working on. A couple nights later, I couldn't sleep, so I got up and started strumming the guitar, playing that song. I couldn't remember Jimmy's words, so I made up my own." When he shared his lyrics with Buffett, the singer said, "Damn, Corcoran, you've got a song." The result, "Cuban Crime of Passion," was featured on Buffett's White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean, an album that provided the blueprint for the Parrothead lifestyle.

He also collaborated on one of Buffett's best-known songs, "Fins." He'd scratched an opening scene on some notepaper, then stuck it in a duffel bag when he went sailing with Buffett. Buffett found the scrap of paper and asked if he could work with it. The result, recorded in 1979, still brings Corcoran a nice royalty check every year.

Not that he needs it. Six books into the saga of Alex Rutledge, Corcoran has joined the top ranks of Florida writers.

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