So, late that Saturday morning , I am slouched at an outdoor table at the News Cafe -- the "in" place for brunch in South Beach. Across the road I can make out the grassy park that runs along the sand and hear, in the distance, the steady susurration of the Atlantic Ocean. I sip my tall glass of orange juice and take another bite of scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. The sun shines. The sky is blue.

Clearly there's no need to rush off to the Miami Book Fair. I mean, really: Seen one book, you've seen them all. Much better to lean back here and study the wannabe supermodels who strut by, unsmiling, in their neon tube tops. Or listen to my languorous waiter scribble orders with the air of someone truly appalled at your choice of food and drink.

A glossy black limo drives slowly by, followed by a Rolls-Royce. At the table next to mine a silver-haired gentleman, dressed in a banker's gray pinstripe, pays his bill and then scoots off on a pair of in-line skates while talking animatedly on his cell phone. Not five minutes later an elderly lady, wearing a full-length purple evening dress, with sequins, sashays along the boulevard, shading her features with a red parasol as she takes an immaculately groomed white poodle outside to do his business. A scowling young man, with wraparound sunglasses, slick-backed hair, and what looks like a crown of thorns tattooed on his upper arm, moves out of her way. By all appearances, he still watches reruns of "Miami Vice."

Two days before I had driven down from Orlando, where I'd been teaching at the University of Central Florida, intending to check out the literary scene in Miami. Just as I was leaving my office, Richard Peabody -- the longtime editor of Washington's Gargoyle magazine -- e-mailed me that writer, composer and Tangier expatriate Paul Bowles had just died. Another hero gone. Not long before, George V. Higgins -- known for his novels about Massachusetts crime and politics -- had dropped dead suddenly from a heart attack. Last August, he'd sent me a copy of his book On Writing, in which he'd quoted Moliere, unforgettably: "Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love. Then you do it for a few friends. Then you do it for money." I had collected nearly all of Higgins's books, going back to his first pitch-perfect, Boston-accented classic, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

And so Death seemed to follow me as I headed south toward Miami. Which, I suppose, is as it should be. Once Miami was the place where retired jewelers from Newark went to play golf and die. More recently, of course, the city has been the setting of choice for noirish, often gallows-humored, crime fiction: Carl Hiaasen (Strip Tease), Elmore Leonard (a Michigan snowbird who's been coming here since 1950), police reporter Edna Buchanan, and thriller-writer James Hall regularly make the bestseller list. The godfathers of this South Florida style are, of course, John D. MacDonald, creator of Travis McGee, and -- even more honored these days -- Charles Willeford, whose Miami Blues introduced the depressed cop Hoke Mosley as well as the accomplished "Frederick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California." From time to time, I used to call up MacDonald and Willeford to review mysteries, but that was long ago. They too are dead.

Shortly after getting off the Florida turnpike, I checked into the Wyndham Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard, across from a Burger King and a Checkers. The streets looked threatening in the early evening. "I wouldn't go out there at night, sir." The hotel itself was bright and cheery, but the elevators slid past a strangely empty shopping mall and a never-moving carousel. The carousel jogged my memory. Back in 1987 when Joan Didion brought out her book Miami, this clean, well-lighted place had been owned by another chain: "There are between the street and the lobby levels of the Omni International Hotel . . . two levels of shops and movie theaters and carnival attractions: a mall, so designed that the teenagers, most of them black and most of them male, who hang out around the carousel in the evenings . . . can look up at the Omni ballroom and lobby levels, but only with some ingenuity reach them. . . . The visible presence of this more or less forbidden upstairs lends the mall in the evening an unspecific atmosphere of incipient trouble."

That sense of menace seemed as strong as ever, even now. Outside the art-deco glitter of South Beach across Biscayne Bay, where one can shop the pricey boutiques on Lincoln Road, possibly glimpse Madonna at Delano's, or sip pink-hued Cosmopolitans while sprawled in the over-stuffed loveseats of The Tides Hotel (seen recently in the film "Random Hearts"), greater Miami possesses the edgy feel of a rough, polyglot port city like Marseilles, a place where anything can happen and probably will. The buildings may be soft white and cool aquamarine, but the people are dark and sunburnt; well over half the city is Hispanic or African-American. On the causeways to Miami Beach, one speeds by dozens of grotesque, top-heavy cruise ships moored in a row, awaiting tourists bound for Cancun and Cozumel; but underneath those same causeways often sleep scores of the homeless in villages of cardboard.

On my first morning in Miami, Matt Schudel, a writer for the Sun-Sentinel's magazine section and author of Muhammad Ali: The Birth of a Legend, Miami, 1961-1964, took me to Robert A. Hittel's bookstore in nearby Fort Lauderdale. As we drove along, listening to the saxophone jazz of Ben Webster, he mentioned that the former art critic of his newspaper simply walked away from his desk on the afternoon he inherited a million dollars and that the grandson of Surrealist film maker Luis Bunuel was a current staffer and that Charles Willeford's papers had been given to the Fort Lauderdale public library and that Dick Francis once lived around the corner and that the most desirable piece of real estate on the New River, near the Third Avenue Bridge, was currently occupied by the Broward County Jail. I wasn't surprised by any of these revelations. This part of Florida was clearly, as they used to say in educational newsreels, a land of contrasts.

In some lights Bob Hittel looks like Ernest Hemingway, which may explain the blue marlin and the waterbuck heads mounted in his shop. It's an airy, pleasant bookstore, located in a strip mall, offering everything from used paperbacks to an autographed Little Prince for $2,000. "I've had books signed by Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Kipling, Dr. Seuss, Einstein, Lindbergh, Disney, Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Tennyson, Twain and more. Most of the presidents since Lincoln . . . One signed Washington." He presses paperback copies of two of his favorite Florida books on me: Cherokee Paul McDonald's Blue Truth, an autobiographical account of a cop's life in Fort Lauderdale, and Randy Wayne White's superb first thriller, Sanibel Flats. On the way out, I notice a six-inch chunk of wood, apparently a bit of floorboard, propped above the shop door. "One of my customers couldn't pay his bill and just before he left town, he stopped by, with his van all loaded with everything he owned. He gave me this piece of wood, claiming that he'd picked it up in Paris when they were tearing down the apartment where James Joyce had lived. I'd like to think the story is true."

During my three-day visit, shuttle buses ran regularly between the Wyndham and Miami-Dade Community College, the main site of the Book Fair. While waiting for one on Saturday afternoon, I struck up a conversation with Roberta Guaspari, a curly-haired redhead, who was promoting her book about teaching music in New York City schools, Music of the Heart. There'd been a film based on her life, and she'd been played by Meryl Streep. Later, the van driver piped in that last year he'd been "no more than five or six feet from Stephen King -- nice fella." The street fair itself -- visited by half a million people each year -- resembles a Middle Eastern bazaar: an endless series of tent-covered booths, selling books, food and ideologies. I picked up flyers from the Mark Twain Scholarship Fund, Gulf Stream Magazine, the Atheists of Florida, the Fundacion Internacional Ruben Dario, Books and Books (the Coral Gables shop run by Mitchell Kaplan, who started the fair in 1982) and Levenger's: Tools for Serious Readers. I stopped by the Antiquarian Book Dealer's building and discovered a signed letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson for $1,400: "Dear Sir, I am quite concerned this morning to learn at the railroad office here that no train leaves this place for Toledo and Ann Arbor after 8 P.M. (which is the hour appointed for my lecture) until tomorrow. . . ." I was tempted by a copy, for $20, of Leslie Charteris's The Saint in Miami, a 1945 thriller in which Simon Templar battles the Nazi secret agents of "Florida's Fifth Column."

At least half the booths were devoted to books in Spanish. I glanced at a 600-page biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Dosso Soldivar called El Viaje a la Semilla (The Journey to the Seed). I even bought, for a dollar, Cahiers Celine, the first volume in a French series devoted to the notorious author of Journey to the End of Night -- a title that seems perfect for South Florida. Besides the various literary vendors, this nine-day-long fiesta of the book, held every November, proffers scores of readings, lectures and author signings. This year the weekend program included Scott Turow, Michael Cunningham, Dave Barry (who works for the Miami Herald), Yolanda Joe, Alan Dershowitz, Quincy Troupe, Sharon Olds, Edward Albee and a panel on the Beats with Michael McClure and Diane Di Prima. I stopped by this last and heard Ann Charters read from her new edition of Jack Kerouac's letters. Back in Orlando, I knew, local fans were establishing an artistic residence in the house where Kerouac was living when On the Road was published. That Saturday evening the Wyndham threw a cocktail party for the visiting authors and exhibitors. It was out in an open courtyard. On my way I bumped into the poet and translator Richard Howard. The stars were shining, people were looking particularly elegant and sexy, the conversation sounded witty; one could imagine party-hopping till dawn. "This is the way Miami should be," exclaimed Howard. I smilingly agreed, and reached for a piece of shrimp to go with my glass of wine. But the next day, on my way back to Orlando, I drove along the ocean, past the Fontainebleau and other grand hotels. In the midst of their gaudy splendor, I glimpsed an even better image for Miami's distinctive salsa-like mix: A bearded man, obviously homeless, stood on a corner dressed in a raggedy monk's robe, while muttering noisily to himself in Spanish. In one hand he held aloft a very large cup of Starbucks coffee.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washingtonpost.com.