American Tropic is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's recent novel, Back to Blood, though on a smaller scale and without the overblown sex scenes. Sanchez displays the same penchant for outrageous, over-the-top characters in the exotic setting of Key West, Florida, similar to the hothouse environment of Wolfe's Miami. The great beauty and natural abundance of Key West is the scene of massive damage to a fragile ecosystem, greedy promoters eager to expand their building projects regardless of the environmental consequences. The most recent threat to the coastline is the pending development of the Neptune Bay Resort.
The novel opens memorably with the discovery of a mutilated body displayed for maximum public impact, pierced with a spear gun, the ears sliced cleanly from the head. The body is placed on a buoy along the route of an annual race event and impossible to miss. Soon after, another mutilated body is found, also in a very public place. Like the first victim, this corpse is a partner in the Neptune Bay project. Only one partner is left alive: Big Conch, who fears no one and wastes resources and money with impunity.
Luz Zamora is the homicide detective assigned to the case, the most efficient, hard-boiled investigator in the department, on intimate terms with the city and its denizens. Luz has a young daughter, Delores, who is dying of leukemia, and a teenager, Carmen, as well as a live-in lover, Joan. Regardless of the outrageousness of the murders, Luz is more than equal to the task ahead of her. Still, she appreciates the unexpected assistance from an unusual personality: Noah Sax ("Truth Dog"), who broadcasts a daily pirate radio program from his creaky vessel, Noah's Lark. Truth Dog requests that his callers express themselves and their viewpoints, especially on the topic of environmental destruction.
It is Noah who receives a call from the murderer, who calls himself Bizango, borrowing the name from a 1980s serial killer. Bizango claims he will kill again until Key West is rid of the despoilers who are decimating the island's precious resources. Soon the island is buzzing with the news, most locals gathering at Zoe's Wreck Room Bar. Noah's soon-to-be-ex, Zoe, has tired of his affection for drink and is determined to free herself from a man who loves his bottle more than her. Regulars Big Conch and Hard Puppy lounge at the bar exchanging stories, the group visited occasionally by Hogfish, the burned-out, shell-shocked son of elderly, dying artist Lareck. But the star is Bizango, who appears in a black rubber suit emblazoned with a skeleton for each new act of mayhem only to disappear before he can be run to ground.
From one macabre murder scene to another, Luz chases the elusive killer. Noah offers what he can as the locals cringe in fear or gossip about the last victim. The plot is loose and bloody, with lots of digressions into the personal lives of major characters and their troubles, from the Key West PD to Delores's graveside ceremony and Noah's self-destructing marriage. There's no shortage of color or exaggeration, a stereotypical depiction of inhabitants in an exotic location on a collision course with nature's avenger. The preaching, via Noah's mic, is relentless, the violence graphic and the novel entertaining, but barely.