Fans of novelist Alex Segura have something new to pick up in bookstores— Dangerous Ends. This is the latest in his series of novels featuring Pete Fernandez. My colleague Bryan Young was able to speak with Segura in a wide-ranging interview about the inspiration for the novel and what’s coming next.
This is the third Pete Fernandez Book, what is different about setting out with a third book with a character as opposed to the first?
The first book is about a blank slate. The characters, setting, conflicts are all new. Silent City was about introducing readers to Pete Fernandez before he really became a private eye. You see his journey from washed-up journalist to someone considering a new path. By the time we meet him in Dangerous Ends, he’s carved out a place for himself. It’s not perfect - he’s still struggling with sobriety, continues to have issues with friends and relationships and also finds himself fighting that instinct to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong - but he’s moved forward. The benefit of a third book is that you have two novels to build off - you have characters in place and problems to overcome. But at the same time, you want to make it accessible to new readers. You don’t want someone to pick up the book and feel left out because they haven’t read the first two. You also want to make sure you reward those people that have been along for the duration. It’s an interesting tightrope to walk, for sure.
What made THIS story the right one for the third book?
I always knew I wanted to tell a story of this scope - one that wasn’t just a mystery set in present-day Miami, but also zoomed out to look at the bloody legacy of Castro’s rule in Cuba, and how that affected so many lives and families. The story is told from the perspective of Pete and his family, but it’s a saga that many can relate to. It’s a more epic kind of story, but still very grounded. It still has a strong, present-day crime for Pete and his partner Kathy to solve: the case of Gaspar Varela, a once-beloved Miami cop now cooling his heels in prison for the murder of his wife a decade before. His daughter, Maya, thinks there’s a bit of evidence out there that can exonerate her father, so she’s enlisted Pete and Kathy. But the deeper the two get, toe more complicated the investigation becomes. Soon, they’re in the crosshairs of Los Enfermos, a deadly, murderous gang of thugs with pro-Castro leanings that have a long, bloody history that reaches further back than Pete’s own life. It’s both an engaging, modern-day mystery but also a personal look at the struggles and risks so many people faced when they escaped Cuba due to Castro’s monstrous regime. It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve ever written, and I’m enormously proud of it.
This book is different from the previous two in that we're not getting a look at the killer's perspective and we have these flashbacks. Tell me about how you arrived at the structure of this book, which I thought was really fascinating.
I wanted to tell two stories set in different times that would, without spoiling anything, eventually collide and reveal a deeper truth or mystery. To do that, I knew I needed more than just Pete running around in the present tense discovering what happened before - though that’s always part of this kind of story. I wanted to show some of the things that would influence the present more immediately, and I wanted to give the reader a sense of how important this story was to Pete and his future. Once I started writing the flashbacks, it added a depth to the present-day narrative that wouldn’t have been there if the story were told in a linear way. It really beefed it up.
This has a lot of the friction you'd expect about Cuban exiles in Miami, how much of that hits close to home?
A lot of it, honestly. I wanted to showcase the gray areas of the Cuban and Miami experience, as I saw it growing up. It’s easy for a lot of people to get fed up with Cuba relations - “let’s be friends already!” But there are decades and decades of tragedy, murder and pain involved with Fidel and Raul Castro’s regime, and it’s not as easy for those raised int he shadow of Fidel to just shrug and say, OK, let’s be pals. A baseball game, a rock concert - that’s all nice PR, but it doesn’t mean change on the island. When there are free elections and true freedom of the people, then I’ll buy it. I also wanted to show that there were gray areas to the whole thing. It’s not a black and white issue. Many people are turned off by how extreme the Miami exile community could be, so there’s a bit of that in there, too. But first and foremost, I wanted to tell a compelling story that drew people in - no matter their political leanings. But I definitely wanted to layer it with a sense of truth and conflict based on this tempestuous relationship.
This book has practically has a soundtrack and a menu... Tell me about those choices?
I’m always working on book playlists as I think about what I’m writing, which is ironic because I don’t listen to music while writing. But I think about writing a lot, and when I do that, I like to have a soundtrack. It helps me suss out the big beats and play out scenes in my head. Sometimes, those songs make it into the actual work - though, I think, I’ve became much pickier about doing that as I wrote more, mainly because I want those moments to be meaningful and add to the scene as opposed to feeling like hat tips or just showing off my record collection. It’s found music, basically. You’re creating a soundtrack based on what’s being played in that moment. Pete’s a big music guy, so it’s a natural tool, but I think it needs to be used thoughtfully.
As for food - who goes to Miami and doesn’t have Cuban food? It’s a given. I’m just trying to give readers the full experience. (laughs)
What's your research process like?
That’s a great question. I usually start researching before I even know I’m doing it for a novel. For this one, I got really obsessed with the Jeffrey MacDonald case - where a green beret is convicted of murdering his wife and two daughters, but places the blame on a gang of Manson-like hippies. I read all the essential books from the case and just got to thinking about it a lot and how it could have played out differently. If I say any more I risk spoiling my own book. The true crime books that explore the MacDonald case run the gamut - there are some that say he’s innocent, some controversial ones like Joe McGinnis’s Fatal Vision, that say he’s guilty and others that just analyze the ethics of the previous books, like Janet Malcolm’s excellent The Journalist and the Murderer. It was a real deep-dive into a case that, to many, is still unresolved, and it gave me a starting point for Dangerous Ends. At the same time, I wanted to talk about Cuba and Miami, so it became a matter of telling this main mystery, but also researching the world it’d be happening in. I read a lot of Cuba history books and a few about the relationship between Miami and the exile community - very interesting stuff that gave me a lot of perspective on my own life in Miami and experiences. All that reading usually happens as I’m refining or editing the book before, so by the time I’m actually writing the next book, I’m just plowing ahead, not taking breaks to revisit research. I’ll sometimes go back and reference but it’s all about trying to get a knowledge base and then stepping on the gas.
How different do you think the Miami you grew up in is reflected in this book? How has the city changed?
It’s very different. The landscape’s changed, the makeup of the city is different - I find, the more time I spend as a New Yorker, the more research I have to do on Miami to make sure Pete’s adventures are accurate. At the same time, I also want to write about a Miami that exists in my head, so I’ll take creative license in terms of locations to suit my story or to keep me engaged - I think the books happen in a somewhat nebulous moment in time, so you can fudge things like bars or restaurants that maybe don’t exist anymore. The city of Miami has become more vibrant, it’s pulled in tighter and I think there’s a bigger sense of community and unity than when I was there. It felt more sprawling and disconnected to me. But maybe that was a byproduct of age. I’m always excited to see how it’s changed every time I visit - which is a few times a year - because it keeps me engaged. These books are in many ways a love letter to my hometown - the one that I remember from living there and the still evolving one I see when I visit.
Have you thought about trying to write a true crime novel?
I have. Great true crime entertains as much as fiction, and it can also have a meaningful impact in the real world. I think about it a lot, actually. It seems like the perfect way to scratch a journalistic itch I’ve been having lately. The only issue is time, and finding the right case or story. When that happens I’ll know, I think.
In what ways do you see yourself reflected in Pete?
Pete’s the guy I knew in college but lost touch with. We have similar backgrounds and hobbies, but at a certain point we diverge. He’s definitely more prone to violence and taking risks, I’ll tell you. But seriously - I wanted to write about someone I could relate to. A kid who grew up in Miami to Cuban parents and is still trying to figure out what his life is about. As he gets older, and as I do, I think you’ll find that his story is evolving and hopefully becoming more complicated and interesting.
Have you already started on a fourth book?
I have. It’s tentatively titled Relics. I can’t say a lot because it really hinges on how the third book ends. You’ll find Pete dealing with a new status quo and some unexpected challenges that pull him into a part of his life he thought long gone.