As with any love affair, it was all about being in the right place at the right time; specifically my wife being in front of the TV and happening to catch one of those annoyingly ubiquitous shows in which Brits mooch about looking for places in the sun which they invariably don’t buy. I’d been hoarding away US dollars for a few years and we’d just begun talking about using them to buy somewhere in the States, when up popped this TV show about Sarasota. Up to that point, our only experience of Florida had involved kids and theme parks, so my wife was immediately captivated by this small city on the Gulf coast which seemed the antithesis of all that. It looked laid-back and liberal and there wasn’t a giant talking mouse to be seen anywhere.
We decided to take a punt and my wife flew out there for a week. Within three days she’d become smitten with the place and based on nothing but her glowing recommendations and some pictures online, we’d made an offer on a house I’d never seen. It was very much a whirlwind romance, but one that thankfully is still growing strong.
Sarasota is every bit as friendly as I’d been promised. Maybe it’s because people are just so damned happy to be here — you don’t see many miserable faces. It took me a while to work out what the noise was that I wasn’t hearing and then I realised it was the sound of car horns being leaned on in frustration which you get inured to in London. When they’re bathed in the Florida sunshine, people just don’t seem to get stressed, even if they’re sitting in traffic.
Almost a century ago, the city was the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers circus and the Ringling name is everywhere; on roads and museums and on the statue which has pride of place at the centre of St Armands Circle, an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants John Ringling developed. While no great fan of performing animals and with any sane person’s healthy terror of clowns, I still enjoy browsing the city’s reclamation yards and junk shops for old circus paraphernalia.
There’s a vaguely hippyish vibe to the place I love. Whether it’s Brits like me who came looking for the sun or Americans who just drifted further and further south until they ran out of land, the inhabitants are rather more laid-back than many I’ve encountered in other parts of the US. Nobody is in too much of a hurry and even in high season there’s enough of pretty much everything to go round. Siesta Key beach was recently voted the best in North America, but if that one’s busy there are plenty more. There are enough high-end restaurants to suit anyone, but nothing can beat a bowl of chowder or a blackened mahi-mahi sandwich at Walt’s Fish Market or the Siesta Key Oyster Bar.
The latter features prominently in my novel Rush Of Blood, as do many of my favourite locations in Sarasota. It has always seemed to me that the best places to set a crime novel are those where all is not quite as it seems; where there is something nasty lurking just beneath the surface. This is why London is the perfect setting for my Tom Thorne novels. There is pomp and history, a tourist-friendly facade… but there’s also plenty of darkness beneath.
When I wanted to step away from the series and write a standalone novel, the location would prove to be no less important. The idea I had centred around something shocking and terrible taking place somewhere that seemed idyllic. I wanted to write about horror in paradise.
And I had just the place…
Many of the places and activities I enjoy the most in Sarasota have found their way into the book, though, as you might expect, they have become imbued with a sense of menace or are now the settings for all manner of terrible goings-on. So, my favourite restaurant is where my murder suspects first get to know one another. The gorgeous waterways around the gulf — where my family and I kayak in the sunshine and try to spot manatees and dolphins — have become the setting for a particularly gruesome discovery. And a trip to that beach now provides an alibi for a murder.
I hope that nobody on the Sarasota tourist board has read the book, as I would hate the warm welcome my family and I have received to cool. It’s a place we’re always sad to leave and which excites my kids in a way that still leaves my wife and I breathless. Obviously I want people to read the book, but they need to remember that I made all the bad stuff up.
I would feel awful if even one person was dissuaded from visiting Sarasota.
The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham is published by Little, Brown. RRP: £9.99. markbillingham.com
Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)