You Have to Carefully Research Ownership
My way of getting to know Central American Costa del Oro-like countries (such as Belize and Costa Rica) is to read about situations and issues that people who live there face every day. Thus, each Kristen Maroney title focuses on a real issue or situation that I discover. In a manner of speaking, I stumble into plots the same way that my heroine stumbles into trouble.
I wrote Tropical Temptation because I wondered how people in third world countries are impacted by the huge hotel/casino resorts that greedy multinationals plop down in their midst. I found out that gambling is indeed a problem that fractures families. Tropical Greed was born of my love for the sea turtles that I saw while scuba diving in St. Kitts, St. Martin, Belize, and Bonaire. When I checked into how the turtles are doing, I found some disturbing news and hatched a plot around it. Tropical Vice is a result of my longtime concern about child prostitution. When I learned that it’s a growing industry in Central America, another plot was born. You could say that for me, each title is a form of wish fulfillment: the problems are shocking but at least those responsible get punished.
In the fall of 2012, I started looking at houses for sale in Belize, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama, mostly to feed my fantasy of retiring in the tropics. Since I’m American, I’ll probably always rent during any sojourns in Costa del Oro-like countries, but I did discover that buying there is fraught with dangers, mainly because the real estate industry is largely unregulated, and all too often corrupt. Often there are complex requirements for surveys, permits, paperwork, and government blessing, but almost nowhere do you have to have any training or a license to call yourself a real estate agent. Anyone can hang out a sign and show you a house; you don ‘t know whether the house is legitimately for sale, or if the seller has an agreement with the “agent” with whom you’re dealing. As a result you or a trusted on-site attorney has to research the title and deed and contact the actual owners of the house to make sure that they want to sell, and that your agent in fact represents them. As Americans, this seems automatic to us. But it is not always so in Central America unless you have an experienced, conscientious lawyer. Again, real estate marketing, real estate sales, and real estate transactions are largely unregulated. There are laws in place but mechanisms for enforcement are scarce and difficult to utilize.
As well as convincing me that short term rentals are the answer for me personally, this situation led me to wonder what happens to your average young Caribbean couple when they look for a place to live. When I started poking around, I found that, indeed, they sometimes get cheated, even with rentals. Desperate and/or unscrupulous people will rent, lease, or sell properties to which they have no right. They have you sign papers, take your money, and disappear. And, of course, they’re sometimes aided by dishonest lawyers who back peddle and deny when you appeal to them. So smart people rent and buy through word of mouth, and people they know personally.
When I started Tropical Scam, I’d been wanting to highlight the relationship between Costa del Oran business owner Felix Dupree and Manny Chouan’s former employer in the Dominican Republic, Damian Birkett. I hint at a relationship, probably shady, in previous books; so it was time to explore what had brought them together, and what the status of their relationship is when the Kristen Maroney mysteries occur.
There’s an unwritten rule for a KM mystery: the really bad trouble comes from somewhere besides Placencia. So the Dominican Birkett seemed like the perfect character to set up a real estate fraud ring in his own country; and then to pressure his old friend Felix to start one up in Costa del Oro. Felix lives in Placencia, so he’s has to be a kind of reformed bad guy who only cooperates in the frauds because the foreigner, Birkett, has him over a barrel. Likewise, the solution to the young, pregnant bride’s housing problems in Tropical Scam comes from San Jose, the capital of San Jose. Kristen role is to get the ball rolling and guide it along.
In February I’m taking a writer’s vacation in Belize (meaning that I’ll be taking lots of notes and thinking about future books). I plan on spending leisurely afternoons drinking smoothies and reading local newspapers, especially the real estate section. Don’t you wonder if there could be a second plot with this theme? Likewise I’ll keep my eyes open for news about the other social issues I’ve written into Kristen Maroney’s career as an accidental sleuth.