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Mystery writers talk whodunit — and how they did it — in Key West

Murder and mayhem run rampant in the quirky, laid-back island town of Key West — or at least they do in hardcover, paperback and now digital.

Where else would it be plausible for a magazine editor to be killed by a poisoned key lime pie, as is the case in Lucy Burdette’s An Appetite for Murder?

In reality, homicides and violence on the two-by-four-mile slice of subtropical paradise at the end of the Overseas Highway are as rare as non-naughty nuns at Fantasy Fest.

But in the creative minds of many mystery writers, the tourist town that once seceded from the United States over a traffic checkpoint is the perfect locale for a whodunit.

And local authors Michael Haskins and Shirrel Rhoades also thought it was the perfect place to hold a mystery writers’ conference.

Last weekend, about 100 people — writers, aspiring writers and those who love to read mysteries, thrillers and true crime stories — attended the first Mystery Writers Key West Fest, complete with a bar crawl led by William E. Butterworth IV, half of the father/son writing team of the W.E.B. Griffin brand. Butterworth also was the guest speaker.

“You are here to listen to some of your favorite mystery writers talk about — not whodunit — but how they do it, how they write such entertaining puzzlers,” stated the introduction to the program for the fest, whose organizers hope to make it an annual event.

Panelists included a who’s who of local and South Florida mystery writers, including New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Heather Graham, who has written more than 150 novels that have been translated into about 20 languages and sold more than 60 million copies. Her latest novel, The Cursed, was just released. And where is the “crime novel ghost story” set?

“Key West,” she said. “An FBI man is killed almost instantly. It has to do with a bed and breakfast and something that happened during the days of salvage. It’s all connected.”

A few years ago, Graham, who grew up in Miami and has made many trips to the Conch Republic, set a series of three books in Key West: Ghost Shadow, Ghost Moon and Ghost Night.

“One is based on someone found in a museum who had ended up in the Elena Milagro de Hoyos display, but it was a real body,” Graham said. “I did not use Ripley’s name because I didn’t want to get sued.”

Graham was inspired by Key West’s true bizarre story from the 1930s of German-born radiologic technician Carl Tanzier, known as Count Carl Von Cosel, who seven years after the death of tuberculosis patient Elena dug her body from the tomb and lived with the corpse in his home for another seven years before being discovered by authorities. The Ripley’s Believe It or Not attraction in Key West has a display depicting the strange story.

The most famous Key West writer of them all, Ernest Hemingway, set one of his novels in the place he called home for more than a decade. To Have and Have Not is the dramatic story of Harry Morgan, an honest man who was forced to run contraband between Cuba and Key West to keep his family from financial ruin.

If you conduct an Internet search of mysteries set in Key West, a slew of books will pop up. There’s Stuart Woods’ Loitering with Intent, Erica Spindler’s Dead Run and Burdette’s aptly named Daiquiri Dock Murder. And Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiassen’s 2013 Bad Monkey begins with a tourist “trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West” reeling in a human arm that was contracted into a fist, with the middle finger rigidly extended.

Tom Corcoran based his popular mystery series on Alex Rutledge, a Key West freelance photographer who is coerced into taking pictures of crime scenes for the city police and county sheriff. In Air Dance Iguana, the murder victim is found hanging from a boat davit.

The “Importance of Getting Locale Right” was the title of one of the conference’s panels. Many said it’s hard to go wrong choosing Key West — with its unique combination of remote island geography, diversity, acceptance and “laid back, leave us alone, almost-anything-goes” mentality — with the beauty of the setting, old Victorian houses and slew of watering holes.

Haskins, who came to the island city almost two decades ago from Los Angeles after a nasty divorce, even uses the real names of many local establishments in his Mad Mick Murphy Key West Series.

Many characters in the series have met their maker in Harpoon Harry’s, where Haskins and Rhoades usually enjoy Sunday brunch together.

Haskell told the story of getting releases to use real names in his novels from about 25 bars and restaurants in just one weekend. His publisher couldn’t believe he hadn’t fabricated the signatures.

“They said, ‘Over the weekend? They didn’t have their attorneys read it?’ ” Haskins said. “[Owner] Evalena Worthington at Schooner Wharf signed it on the railing as she was walking on the boardwalk. The publishing world wasn’t ready for Key West.”

But even Haskins couldn’t get the La Concha Hotel to allow its name to be used for the site of two murders. Just changing the name to Key West Hotel also didn’t work since it is the only six-story, pink hotel in town. So Haskins also had to change the location to satisfy his publisher. When the book came out, many readers wanted to know where Sweetzer Street was. “Los Angeles,” Haskins said.

Rhoades edited the book Murder in Key West and Other Island Mysteries. It includes his story Four Fingers and the Dead Drag Queen and Jonathan Wood’s A Lucky Man, described as a gonzo tale of a man, a dead body and a mysterious palm reader.

Rhoades also is publisher of Absolutely Amazing eBooks, which carry many mysteries set in Key West. Three are by Robert Coburn, who worked for decades at advertising agencies before publishing his first book, A Loose Knot, at age 77.

“When I first came down here in the mid- to late-’70s to do a commercial shoot for Old Milwaukee beer, I fell in love with the place,” Coburn said.

When he decided to try writing, he thought Key West would be the perfect setting for his whodunit. His central character, Jack Hunter, was in Miami on advertising business when he learned his ex-wife had been killed and he was the main suspect. He goes on the lam, to Key West.

“People who run to Key West can’t go any further, so they either stop or turn around and go back,” said Coburn.

Mike Dennis came to Key West about 23 years ago because he liked the “idea of it — the last stop at the end of the line.” When he saw a guy in his 70s riding a bicycle, with long, flowing white hair down his back and wearing nothing but shorts, he thought: “If there is room here for this guy, it’s my kind of town.”

Dennis, who left Key West for a short time to be a professional poker player, has set the three books of his Key West Nocturnes Series in his adopted hometown. “I want to show Key West as being a true noir city, where you can lift the veil of Key West and take the readers where the tourists never go, down these dark alleys.”

No mystery writers conference in Key West would be complete without inviting local and federal law enforcement, and a former newspaper crime reporter at the Key West Citizen, to provide true “you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up” stories as inspiration for future fictional use.

The current Monroe County sheriff, a captain with the Key West police department, a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain and a retired officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency in Key West who ran drug-interdiction operations in Latin American and the Caribbean all told such stories that could end up in a book one day.

One involved a domestic violence call in which two lesbians were fighting over a vibrator. Another case involved a cat called “Big Foot” who had seven toes on one paw and eight on the other and was abducted by a wealthy couple who would later spend thousands in attorney’s fees.

Most of their true stories, however, did not involve murder. But that doesn’t stop people like Haskins from proudly becoming a mass murderer “on paper.” He estimates he has killed 15 to 20 people, maybe more, in his books. He isn’t certain of the number because he doesn’t know how many died in a shootout on Front Street while Mick Murphy is on Mallory Pier.

Dennis said his books are not “body count extravaganzas, but people do die.” He said people are interested in reading about murder.

“Well, who among us hasn’t wanted to knock off somebody?” he said. “In fact, it would not surprise me if somebody in this room committed murder.”