Alex Segura is the author of the Pete Fernandez Quintet, five mysteries that center on a dogged but vulnerable journalist-turned-detective.
The latest (and potentially last, but never say never) book in the series, “Miami Midnight,” finds Pete at a relatively stable place in life—but he’s soon drawn into a mystery that not only involves murder most foul, but connects in an unexpected way to his own past.
Alex sat down with Mystery Tribune’s Nick Kolakowski to talk about the evolution of Pete as a character, how he plots, his influences, and why he never liked the trope of the invincible, all-knowing detective.
Nick Kolakowski: When we first met series hero Pete Fernandez, way back in “Silent City” (the first book in the series), he was an alcoholic newspaper copyeditor desperately trying (and often failing) to get his life together and keep his demons in check.
In this latest book, “Miami Midnight,” he’s sober, running a bookstore, trying not to get drawn into an investigation (at least at first), and dealing with the aches and pains of old violence (including a shooting that almost killed him).
It’s a stunning arc for any character, and I’m wondering how far out you plotted it. Back when you were writing “Silent City,” did you envision where Pete would be a few books down the line? Or has he evolved more organically as you’ve started each new novel?
Alex Segura: I wish I’d mapped it out—but no, it was fairly organic. With Silent City, I just wanted to write the book. I didn’t think it’d be a series. But in the back of my mind, I must have wanted it to be more.
By the end of the first novel, all the pieces are there, minus a few supporting characters. The big thing for me was that I wanted a big reason for each book—I didn’t want it to feel like episode 10 of 200.
They had to feel important, and be meaningful moments in his story—not just in the story, if that makes sense. The Pete you meet on page one of any of the novels should feel fairly different from the one you see at the end, and that adds up.
That said, I wasn’t flying completely blind. I wanted to tell a story of a flawed guy, and how a shattered person could rebuild themselves over time, using the various tropes of the PI genre.
But I also wanted to flip the script a bit and show the origins of the private eye—which I feel like we don’t see enough of. We always find these detectives mid-stream, established, tough, loaded with street contacts, and whatever else.
…once I was mostly done with Silent City, and I knew I’d try to take a stab at a series…
But how do they get there? That’s what this quintet of books is about—Pete Fernandez becoming. So I always had that in mind, and I always knew that each book would not only deal with a big, Miami-specific crime, but a personal crisis for Pete, one that often dated back to his youth, or his family’s past. That weight of legacy, home, and regret really permeates the series, I think, and it wasn’t by accident.
So, once I was mostly done with Silent City, and I knew I’d try to take a stab at a series—I wanted the novels to feel different from the rest. I didn’t want it to just seem evergreen, episodic or too… comfortable.
That’s why each one almost feels like a standalone, by design: Down the Darkest Street is a serial killer book, my love note to Thomas Harris and the Pat and Angie books by Dennis Lehane; Dangerous Ends is almost historical fiction; Blackout is, I think, the most nihilistic of the five, part political thriller, part crazy cult murder movie; and Miami Midnight is a bit more somber and elegiac, but not without bite and twists.
I hope people feel like it sticks the landing, because I really didn’t want it to seem like a super-tidy, “aw, isn’t that sweet”-style finale. People die. Bad things happen. Pete fucks up. And that’s the end, folks.
Nick Kolakowski: One of the things I really love about “Miami Midnight” is how you seamlessly catch the reader up on virtually the whole series within the first few chapters, but the exposition doesn’t feel forced or unnatural.
It also reveals the sheer complexity of the previous books’ plots. Are you a “pantser” when it comes to plotting your novels (i.e., you see where the narrative takes you, and then adjust during rewrites), or are you a meticulous outliner?
Alex Segura: I’m neither! I feel like I’m part of the silent majority of authors who fall into a hybrid category. I wish I was diligent enough to be a detailed outliner. I start off with an idea, or a sense of what I want to write about. With Miami Midnight, it was jazz and the mob.
Then, once I figured out the central, personal crime Pete has to solve, I fell into a true crime memoir rabbit whole, which fed my brain as I thought about the book.
Then all that info becomes images in my head: The opening image, which in Miami Midnight is the discovery of a body, and the arrival in Miami of someone who has some not-great plans for Pete. I also have a clear visual idea of the ending (with Blackout, I knew it would be during a hurricane, the tropical landscape tossed aside by wind and rain).
Then I type up some rough notes, do my best to keep doing that until I have a tight outline, then give up midway and start writing.
I don’t share my first drafts with anyone—my wife, my agent—no one. They’re just not ready. So I think the strength of the plot and of my writing as a whole comes from constant revision, first for structure—just pure logic and effectiveness—then the prose and picture you’re trying to paint.
So, on some ways I’m a plotter and in others I’m a pantser. I wouldn’t wish my method on anyone.
Nick Kolakowski: Midway through the book, Pete takes a trip to Cuba. I went to Cuba back when Castro was still breathing, and I found your descriptions on the cab ride in, etc. to be evocative—I could practically smell the sea air along the Malecón. What research did you do for the Cuban section of the book? And do you have a personal connection with Cuba?
Alex Segura: Well, my parents were born there. My family is from there. We still have cousins and relations there. So Cuba was always this mysterious “other” land: the home we never got to have. It felt exotic, sexy, dirty, alien and yet strangely familiar.
The Cuba scenes were tough to write because I’ve never been myself, but thankfully, I have many friends who live and work in Havana as journalists, who have the same Miami background I do, and I was able to pick their brains.
Not just about the logistics of what Pete does in Cuba—though they were helpful in that regard—but just what the place is like. I’ve also read a ton of books about Cuba, and the country’s twisted relationship with the Miami exiles and its standing on the international stage.
In terms of fiction, especially crime fiction, Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde books were hugely influential—on Pete in general, but also on that sequence. If you squint, you’ll be able to see where Mario Conde was supposed to make a cameo. Who knows? Maybe it was him.
Nick Kolakowski: One thing I really love about this series is that Pete is really fallible. He screws up. He struggles. And although his fighting skills in “Miami Midnight” are much improved, thanks to his aikido, he has a tendency to get the absolute crap beaten out of him.
It’s a refreshing difference from other series where the detective is nearly invulnerable, and tends not to make unforced errors.
Crafting a character (especially one who evolves over a series) is a delicate thing, and I’m wondering how you manage to keep that balance with Pete—between his vulnerability and the inner strength he doesn’t always know that he has, and making sure he doesn’t tip too firmly in one direction or another?
Alex Segura: There are a few tropes of the PI genre that just rub me wrong, like the “hard drinkin’ detective” who can knock back five martinis, get behind the wheel of his car and solve the crime.
In terms of fiction, especially crime fiction, Leonardo Padura’s Mario Conde books were hugely influential…
The other one that irks me is the invincible protagonist, who is a great fighter, never seems to need to recover, and is just an alpha badass. That’s really boring to me. I was never a big action movie kid. It just felt fated that this super-tough dude would win, so where’s the suspense in that?
I wanted a character that was not only flawed in the sense that he’s an alcoholic and kind of selfish, but he’s also a person. A single man. Fallible and human.
As bonkers as the books can sometimes get, I try to keep a sense of reality going—Pete is an ex-copyeditor at a newspaper. He can’t just start kicking ass because he got a PI license.
But he’s also smart, and evolving, so it made sense that—by the end of the series—he realizes that if he’s going to keep putting himself in these positions where his life is at risk, he needs to know how to defend himself, and do it in a way that syncs up with his values.
In terms of the detective part of it—yeah, I’ve read many books where it just seems really easy for the protagonist and that only really rings true with Sherlock Holmes, for me. If I’m reading a modern-day PI series, I don’t want to feel like the lead isn’t gonna break a sweat. I want them to stumble a bit, because that’s human and that’s interesting.
…the first step in making your characters interesting is by making them human—and humans make mistakes.
I feel like a lot of writers struggle with the likability issue. “If I make my character mean or a jerk, the reader won’t like them!” Well, that’s possible, but you don’t want your characters to be likable.
You want them to be interesting. And the first step in making your characters interesting is by making them human—and humans make mistakes. It’s worth the risk. You end up with a richer story, and while it might mean your books aren’t for everyone—that’s okay, too.
Nick Kolakowski: Not to spoil anything, the ending of “Miami Midnight” is one of those conclusions that very satisfyingly wraps up a series, while leaving a door open for sequels.
That balancing act between Definitive Ending and Possible Continuation seemed very cinematic to me—or something you’d find at the end of a really good graphic novel.
Which brings me to my question: When you were thinking about how you were going to wrap all this up in a satisfying way, were there any influences or inspirations that helped pull you in a particular direction?
Alex Segura: Well, first off, I’m glad you felt the ending worked. It was tough to write, on many levels. As far as inspirations—I was thinking of serialized TV a lot, and how the great shows handled their finales.
I’m in the camp that loved the final Sopranos episode, but a jarring thing like that wouldn’t work in prose. Still, The Sopranos did a great job during its last season of closing threads—killing off major characters, closing out long-running threats, while still maintaining a sense of tension.
I thought shows like Breaking Bad and The Americans also did a great job of not only ending their stories, but building toward the big finish. So I kept that in mind—I think, and hope, that Miami Midnight feels like the final installment from early on. I tried for a general sense of dread, a sense that things were coming to a head unlike the previous books.
Then you start to see elements you weren’t expecting crop up—some from the past, some new but connected to the past—that really signal that things are gonna get dicey very soon.
It was more complex than earlier books because I felt like I had to tie them all together, while still telling a story that stood on its own and didn’t feel weighed down by “continuity” for lack of a better word.
Comics inspire me all the time, obviously, and it affects how I write my prose, but few of them end! At least from the major superhero publishers. But indie comics, like Love & Rockets, Stray Bullets, Criminal, and others, did inspire me with their sense of momentum—their characters age, evolve, change, die… there aren’t any rules that can’t be broken.
You can’t kill Batman—at least not forever—but in an indie comic, you can kill off a key player if it serves the story. So that’s always been inspirational to me.
One of my gripes with TV lately is that sometimes you get these acclaimed shows and they become acclaimed because they’re edgy and fearless and well-crafted but then you get to the finale and it feels like the writers are treating the characters with kid gloves, like, “Let’s not break the fancy silverware,” when it should really be “Let’s keep doing what we’re doing and do it more because it’s the end.”
I felt strongly that I had to ride the wave until it crashed, even if it meant losing characters that readers love and potentially limiting future stories. But I feel like it worked.
To view the collection of columns by Nick Kolakowski, a regular contributor to Mystery Tribune, please see here.