Becoming Pete Fernandez
[Note: The following piece contains spoilers for the first Pete Fernandez mystery, Silent City.]
Since its debut in 2013 with Silent City, Alex Segura’s Pete Fernandez series has become one of modern noir’s most buzzed-about properties. The fourth installment, last year’s Blackout, garnered an Anthony nomination for Best Novel and was named to yearly “most anticipated” lists by LitHub and MysteryPeople. The upcoming fifth entry, MIAMI MIDNIGHT (due out August 13 from Polis Books), was pegged as one of the month’s most hotly anticipated books by the Los Angeles Times. It’s the kind of recognition that would have many writers dreaming about the mileage they could get out of a character who has so clearly captured readers’ imaginations.
For Segura, though, it’s a great way to go out. Just as the series is proving it has legs, MIAMI MIDNIGHT will bring Pete’s story to its conclusion.
“I guess I wish I was a bit more conniving about it, looking at it that way,” Segura jokes. “I could’ve probably milked out a few more Pete books to bask in the glow, but it’s also time, you know? This story is ending for him, and while there are probably more Pete Fernandez novels to be written, they aren’t meant to come out now.”
Like the best contemporary noir, MIAMI MIDNIGHT and its predecessors find Segura in a constant, active dialogue with the conventions that have come to define the genre. Pete checks off a number of the boxes you’d expect from a hardboiled PI—he’s an alcoholic, his luck with women leaves much to be desired, and he can hand out a beatdown with the best of them. But he’s also a committed 12-stepper who’d rather take a bullet than a drink; he’s a student of Aikido, a martial art that teaches practitioners to protect their attackers from injury; and he’s an often-lovesick romantic rather than a womanizer.
The push and pull faced by contemporary noir writers—honoring the genre’s history versus reinventing it and pushing it forward—is something that’s often been at the forefront of Segura’s mind. Throughout the Pete Fernandez series, he’s been happy to cherry-pick those genre tropes when it serves his needs, and ditch them altogether when it doesn’t.
“I love the PI genre,” Segura says. “The idea of this tarnished knight with a checkered past but strong code of honor is extremely appealing to me, so I try to pay homage to the tropes I feel ring true—the strong supporting cast, the vices, the stubbornness, the defiance in the face of authority—all of those things are seen in the best PI fiction, but I wanted them woven through a filter of inexperience for Pete. He’s still learning the ropes, even in MIAMI MIDNIGHT—he’s still evolving. The things I didn’t really jibe with were the idea of the hard-drinking hero who can knock back a half-dozen martinis, hop into his car and save the day. It just doesn’t ring true, and there are real, lasting effects that come from behaving that way. And while Pete does stumble into bed with people, there are always consequences. I get tired of the PI who meets the femme fatale, beds her, then moves on with his case. It’s just not realistic and a disservice to women, really. I didn’t want Pete to become this typical, grizzled drunk who sits in his office with a bottle in one drawer and a gun in the other. I was more tuned in to finding out how this guy could evolve from being a complete mess to being less of a mess and more helpful to people, while honoring the parts of the PI genre I still admire.”
That keen awareness of the genre’s strengths and pitfalls is the result of a lifetime of reading crime novels. Segura’s childhood love of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie whodunits paved the way for a later obsession with mob stories and true crime. He read The Godfather when he was only eight years old—“a little too early, in retrospect”—and found himself captivated by the “dark, regal, but also lurid world populated by these conflicted, not necessarily heroic characters.” Eventually he found Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Margaret Millar, and other noir masters, and he never looked back. Still, it was decades before he’d get around to writing a mystery of his own, noir or otherwise.
“It wasn’t really until I moved to NYC, about 12 years ago, that I started to consider writing my own mystery,” says Segura, a lifelong comic book fan whose dream had always been to break into comics. (Segura is currently the co-president of Archie Comics, where he also writes the ongoing series The Archies.) But when he found himself working at DC Comics, that dream tilted a little; comics became his job, leaving an opening for a new passion.
“Every week you’d get a stack with all the new books coming out that week,” he says. “It was insane. But it was a job, too—so I had to detach a little bit, which opened up a little crack for mysteries to basically become my pleasure reading. But, because I can’t do anything for fun, I soon became obsessed—especially by modern noir masters like George Pelecanos, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, and Dennis Lehane.”
To Segura, those writers weren’t just following in the footsteps of the grandmasters he’d grown up reading; they were spinning the genre into entirely new directions. He began wondering if noir could, at least for the time being, be the creative outlet he’d been seeking.
“It just felt like they’d evolved the narrative, and taken the foundational stuff Chandler and his generation laid down and twisted it into something more intense, passionate, and dangerous,” he says. “Like the previous era, place and setting were so essential to these stories—the cities where these novels took place felt as vibrant as the characters, and that got me to thinking about my own hometown, Miami, a place I was growing very homesick for. So, in a fit of ego and hubris I decided to write a Miami PI novel, and that eventually became Silent City, the first Pete Fernandez novel.”
When Segura started writing Silent City, he says he wanted to read a book that didn’t exist. “I wanted to read a book about a Cuban-American PI in Miami who wasn’t as polished as Marlowe or Archer, who made mistakes and who was on a journey of becoming,” he says.
That novel was originally intended as a one-off—Segura’s way of proving to himself that he could write a book. But something changed along the way.
“I wasn’t cocky enough to think I’d get a chance to write another one,” Segura remembers. “But by the end of Silent City, Pete’s gotten some agency and is gaining momentum. The real spark, though, was when—toward the end of the book—the ‘missing girl,’ Kathy Bentley, shows up and helps him solve the case. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Huh, there’s something here—some chemistry that would be fun to explore. What a bummer it’s a standalone!’ Then I realized it didn’t have to be, and dove right into writing the next one, Down the Darkest Street, which is, in many ways, my love letter to Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro books. At the same time, I was having trouble getting an agent, and I stand firmly by the belief that when in doubt about anything we can’t control, the best thing a writer can do is just sit and write. The rest will be what it is.”
While each installment in the series works as a standalone, Pete’s final mystery rewards loyal readers by tying up a number of loose threads from the detective’s troubled past. When Pete and his partner, Kathy, reluctantly agree to investigate a case involving the murder of a Miami mobster’s son, they soon find the job has inexplicable ties to the death of Pete’s mother—who did not, as Pete has always believed, die in childbirth. As Pete attempts to reconstruct the last days of his mother’s life, he’s forced to confront demons long thought exorcised, from an ex-lover with cartel ties to a masked assassin thought to be dead.
Series fans who are reluctant to say goodbye to Pete should know that, while MIAMI MIDNIGHT is the last Fernandez novel on Segura’s docket for now, it’s not quite the end of the line. Segura, who has co-authored novellas that find Pete crossing paths with Rob Hart’s Ash McKenna and Dave White’s Jackson Donne, is working with novelist Erica Wright on a crossover that will have Pete meeting up with Wright’s PI, Kat Stone, in New York. After that, Segura’s fans can look forward to his first standalone novel and a slew of new comics projects.
“I have other stories in mind and I’m sure the second I have a moment to breathe I’ll get another Pete idea, but for now, I’m really proud of these five books and I think they stand together really well,” Segura says. “I’m lucky to have had this opportunity to tell a big, thrill-ride adventure that also manages to be a personal story about recovery, rebuilding your life, and finding yourself as you get older. I might change my mind later, but for now, I’m happy where MIAMI MIDNIGHT leaves Pete and his friends and enemies.”