Key West is no stranger to mystery and suspense. Consider the nickname “Bone Island,” bestowed upon Key West by Spanish settlers in reference to the Calusa Indian tradition of leaving the remains of their enemies on the beaches of the island. Creepy, right?
How about the legend of Count von Cosel, the radiology tech whose obsession with tuberculosis patient Elena Milagro de Hoyos carried on far beyond the disease took her life? After exhuming her body from its tomb, he lived with her corpse for seven years of decomposing, undead bliss. And how can we forget Robert the Doll, the haunted plaything that has allegedly caused car accidents, divorce, broken bones and a wide variety of other catastrophes?
Add to that Key West’s reputation as a haven for pirates, drug-runners and other unsavory characters looking to get off the grid and you have the perfect venue for a little mystery. And what better way to embrace the eeriness of it all than with a festival celebrating all the things that lurk in the shadows?
Jeffery Deaver checks out Ernest Hemingway’s Key West writing room. PHOTO BY CAROL TEDESCO
Mystery Fest Key West, an annual gathering of award-winning and bestselling mystery fiction and true crime authors and the readers who love them, is returning to Key West this month from June 28-30, at a variety of locations around town, including the Custom House Museum (281 Front St.), The Studios of Key West (533 Eaton St.), Hemingway Rum Company/Papa’s Pilar Distillery (201 Simonton St.) and Schooner Wharf Bar & Galley (202 William St.).
The three-day weekend of total mystery immersion — open to published authors, aspiring authors and mystery lovers alike — includes a “killer” hit-list of some of America’s top award-winning and bestselling mystery writers and true crime experts. This year marks the sixth anniversary of Mystery Fest Key West and the lineup of authors and events is more exciting than ever. Following in the Key West mystery tradition of authors like Tom Corcoran and John Hersey, this year’s fest includes three days of interesting panels, presentations and social events in the company of celebrity authors and mystery fans from all walks of life.
Heather Graham is a frequent Mystery Fest presenter and panelist. PHOTO BY MARTI CORN
While the fest has grown in fame and attendance since its incipience, “it still has the intimacy of a boutique-sized convention with lots of direct interaction between authors and audience,” comments author, publisher and fest cofounder Shirrel Rhoades. “And, because of the star power of our guest authors, the fascinating panels and unique social events, we also attract writers and fans of other genres as well.”
Headliners this year include returning Keynote Speaker and international bestselling author of over 40 novels Jeffery Deaver; special host and New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Heather Graham; and New York Times bestselling authors Lisa Black, Carla Norton and Diane A.S. Stuckart. Graham, Mike Dennis and Rick Ollerman are the featured panel hosts and authors like Jane Bock, Micki Browning, John Cunningham, Cheryl Hollon, Bill Craig, Gray Basnight, Wayne Gales, David Beckwith, Bob Coburn and Renee Kumor and literary agent Bob DiForio will all be panelists or workshop hosts at various events throughout the weekend.
Author John Cunningham, right, with Florida Keys veterinarian Douglas Mader, left, and former Key West Citizen photographer Mike Hentz, at a previous Mystery Fest Key West. PHOTO BY CAROL TEDESCO
To kick off the fest on Friday evening, Graham will host a reception at the Custom House Museum from 5:30 to 7 p.m. A fixture at Mystery Fest Key West since year one, Graham has written more than 150 novels and novellas. She has more than 75 million books in print, published in over 20 languages. And, most importantly (in our opinion anyway), she is effusive in her adoration of Key West.
“I love Key West and I always have,” Graham says. “I’m from Miami and I often think that one of the rewards of being a Miamian is that the Keys are right there. But more than that — the con is one of the warmest and friendliest to be found anywhere. Shirrel comes up with great panels and super events and the weekend is a learning experience that is also an experience with old friends and new that is all the right things! As many times as I’ve been, I learn new things about Key West each time. I’m a diver and because of that, Carol Tedesco managed to get me a day diving with the Mel Fisher crew. You can’t ask for more.”
Much like its host location, Key West Mystery Fest does not restrict itself to the confines of the average literary festival. For example, one of Saturday’s workshops, will be hosted by Jane Bock, an author and forensic plant science expert who worked on the JonBenet Ramsey case. Celebrated authors will also host panel discussions on subjects ranging from the state of the publishing industry to how to plot a mystery.
And if that wasn’t outside the box enough, everyone who registered for the fest by midnight on June 1 was automatically entered in a drawing to win a cameo walk-on role in author Gray Basnight’s next release, a sequel to “Flight of the Fox,” tentatively titled “Madness of the Q” and due out in 2020. Other weekend events will include author book signings and the annual favorite Bloody Mary Morning Breakfast at Schooner Wharf, hosted by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
Each year, Mystery Fest Key West presents the Mystery Writers Whodunit Award to a mystery writer based solely on the first three pages of a finished but unpublished manuscript. A blind judging committee — comprised of Dr. Toby Armour, a playwright, author and performer whose credits include the murder mystery book “Blood Tells” and the play “Is This 24 Lily Pond Lane?”;
Carol Lazar, an author, columnist, photojournalist and former senior editor for South Africa’s Independent
Newspapers; Captain Reef Perkins, author of “Sex, Salvage and Secrets,” “Screwed, Blu’d and Tattoed” and the mystery novel “Deep Air”; Robin Robinson, an author, syndicated newspaper columnist, educator and horticulturist; and Shirrel Rhoades, an author, movie critic, media consultant and publisher of Absolutely Amazing eBooks and cofounder of Mystery Fest Key West — has awarded this year’s prize to J.E. Irvin, of Springboro, Ohio, for “The Strange Disappearance of Rose Stone.”
As part of her prize package, Irvin will receive free admission to Mystery Fest Key West 2019, along with airfare and hotel accommodations for the duration of the fest. “I am honored to be the recipient of the 2019 Whodunit Award,” she says. “I’m grateful to the Mystery Fest and Absolutely Amazing eBooks for the opportunity to send this novel out to the reading public, and I’m looking forward to renewing acquaintances at the Conference in June.” Irvin will receive her trophy at 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 29, at the official award ceremony at The Studios of Key West, where she will also read an excerpt from “The Strange Disappearance of Rose Stone.”
The 2019 Mystery Fest Key West is sponsored by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, the Key West Citizen daily newspaper, The Helmerich Trust, The Gardens Hotel, The Laureate Key West, Margaritaville Key West Resort and Marina and Key West Art & Historical Society. Registration costs $195 and includes all panels and presentations, Saturday’s Keynote Speaker luncheon and the Bloody Mary morning breakfast. For a full fest schedule, to register, and for links to accommodations visit, www.mysteryfestkeywest.com.
Q&A WITH JOHN CUNNINGHAM
Florida Weekly Key West: Seven books into the Buck Reilly Adventure series, how do you keep things fresh?
John Cunningham: The protagonist in the series, Buck Reilly, and all the characters for that matter, are constantly evolving, just like the rest of us. And the series is set in Key West but each book goes to different places, like the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Colombia, Guatemala, New York City, S. Barths and multiple other locations, so there is always new information, storylines and characters in addition to the core characters, so it’s easy to keep the series fresh. The eighth book, “White Knight,” is being edited now.
FWKW: What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing mystery novels in the series format, rather than independent storylines with different characters?
JC: There are great advantages to writing series-based mysteries, provided readers connect with your characters, as people like following story arcs long past a single novel. Of course there are many great standalone books, but my goal in writing the Buck Reilly series is to provide an evolving continuity and continuous storyline for Buck and the cast of characters and locations that is fueled by familiarity with their situations, personalities, challenges, failures and victories. Readers of series fiction generally anxiously await future installments of their favorite series, so if you can create a world that resonates with them, you keep going.
FWKW: What role does Key West play in the Buck Reilly books?
JC: Key West plays many roles in the Buck Reilly series. Buck lives in the La Concha Hotel, where he fled to after his globe-trotting success at e-Antiquity, his former world-renowned treasure hunting company, was shut down by the SEC and the FBI and his partner went to jail for fraud. Buck operates Last Resort Charter & Salvage from the La Concha and he flies a pair of antique Grumman flying boats, a Widgeon and Goose, out of Key West International Airport. There are numerous places around the island featured that provide familiarity without turning into a travel guide. Several people, both real and fictitious, appear regularly with the intent of portraying glimpses into our One Human Family here. Plus, what better muse than Key West for history, colorful characters and a launchpad into the Caribbean for an endless amount of mysteries and adventures? All of the books start or end in Key West, and a few are set there in their entirety.
FWKW: The plot of “Silver Goodbye” is set against the backdrop of Hurricane Irma. Was the novel inspired by the storm or did you work Irma in at a later date to add a sense of currency?
JC: I had a storyline that I had been considering for “Silver Goodbye,” the most recent book in the series, that Irma made that much more immediate, timely and intense. My goal was for readers to experience the pre-storm preparations and the post-storm devastation all while enjoying an edge of your seat adventure. Irma was such a profound phenomenon for the people of the Keys, I felt I couldn’t write a Key West-based series without immediately portraying how it impacted our lives. In fact, many other writer friends and I launched a post-Irma fund raising campaign for storm relief too and we raised nearly $15,000 for local charities who were so impactful in helping the communities in the Keys after the storm. I also co-wrote a song with former Coral Reefer Keith Sykes called “Hanging Out at Le Select.” Keith recorded it and all of the proceeds went to hurricane relief through Kenny Chesney’s Love for Love City charity. Needless to say, Irma impacted all of us in the Keys, but my goal in “Silver Goodbye” was to provide depth to the sentiment “KEYS STRONG,” which so well defines the character of people who live here.
FWKW: Do you hit the reset button between books? How do you wind down before picking up the pen/keyboard again?
JC: I definitely pause between books, not only to let the last iteration resonate, but to also let fresh new topics percolate. I’m always impressed by authors who crank out three or more books a year, especially in our bingewatching/ reading culture of today, but since I visit all the locations where the Buck Reilly series is set, and research in-depth history or social concerns that permeate the stories, it generally takes me longer. I also like to include real people in my books (with their permission, of course) which also takes time to arrange. In my opinion it’s worth it, as that provides a depth to the stories and blends reality and fiction that can be lost in crank-it-out types of series.
FWKW: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s fest? What makes our out-of-the-way festival such a draw for authors of the genre and the fans who love them?
JC: I always look forward to seeing and learning from all the other writers, and also the special guests who provide a wealth of technical information. Plus, the opportunity to interact with the attendees, mystery fans that will unabashedly share their likes and dislikes, is important and helpful for authors to hear. Shirrel Rhoades and the entire Mystery Fest Key West team do a great job in creating a fun interactive agenda around the island for guest writers and fans to enjoy together. Everyone loves coming to Key West, which makes it easier to attract successful authors like Jeffery Deaver, Heather Graham, Lisa Black, Wayne Stinnett, Bill Craig and a long list of others, as well as attendees who can combine a fun vacation with spending time with some favorite or soon to be favorite writers. What a great combination!
FWKW: What are your favorite things to do when you’re in Key West?
JC: I first lived in Key West from 1978 to 1981 so I have a lot of friends from the old days here, and now that I have lived here again for several years this has led to many new friendships all of which equates to a full social calendar with diverse groups of great people. I love to fish, dive, be on the water, hear amazing music — there is a really strong music community here — and soak up the history and broad diversity that exists on the island. I love to ride my bike or walk, which is easy since we live in Old Town, and everything is a few minutes away. There is so much to do, in fact, I have to sequester myself in order to write!
FWKW: And lastly, what are you reading these days?
JC: I always have a number of books going at once, which right now includes the first draft of a book by my local friend Shawn Martin, who is the Rum Maker at the Pilar distillery; Nick Sullivan’s new one, “Deep Cut”; and whatever Suz Orchard, the owner of Key West Island Bookstore (where you can get signed copies of the Buck Reilly adventures) recommends.
Read more here.