“If you were pursuing your cousin’s kidnapper across Florida, you would want a man like Skink at your side. Maybe.”
— Kirkus Reviews on Skink–No Surrender
Okay, let’s admit it. Florida has problems.
Fortunately, journalist, muckraker and novelist CARL HIAASEN has it covered, in one of the most-entertaining string of comic novels the genre has seen in a long, long time.
Are they satire? Parody? Screwball comedy? Gonzo noir? Tony Hillerman tagged him “the Mark Twain of the crime novel.” A case could almost be made that his “Florida” novels, starting with Tourist Season in 1986, are the funniest, wildest, zaniest books to hit the P.I. genre since Jonathan Latimer cut loose with Bill Crane, except for one thing–there’s no real series character here. Or often, a private eye.
Still, a case could be made…
The only regularly recurring characters in the series of gonzo escapades are SKINK (real name Clinton Tyree), the former-governor of Florida and present wild-haired swamp rat, now living somewhere off the grid in the Everglades and living off roadkill, who sports a jaunty a plastic shower cap, an electronic tracking device he found on a wild Florida panther and a glass eye he salvaged from a stuffed barn owl he found somewhere. He swoops out of the wild every now and then to scoop up some delicious roadside morsel or to right some grievous wrong, and the long-suffering homicide detective, SERGEANT AL GARCIA (Zorro fan’s take note!), cursed with the memory of every corpse he’s ever had the displeasure to meet.
But, like I said, except for a few of books, the lead character is never actually a “PI.” However, the hero in almost every novel, while never the same man (or occasionally a woman), is pretty much cut from the same cloth. They’re almost all relatively young, but old before their time, filled with enough disillusionment and bitter experience in their lives to make up for it. They’re either private investigators, former investigators for various law enforcement agencies, reporters, or ex-reporters, and they’re usually burned out, and sinking into cynicism, until some crisis rattles their cage, and they stumble back into battle.
In 1986’s Tourist Season, it’s former reporter turned private eye BRIAN KEYES.
In Double Whammy (1988), it’s R.J. DECKER, a rookie P.I. looking into corruption and possibly murder on the professional bass fishing circuit.
Retired Florida State investigator MICK STRANAHAN has to get back in the saddle when someone tries to kill him in Skin Tight (1989). Watch out for seven-foot tall naked hitmen with bad skin on Sea-Doos! In this one, Hiassen is to the plastic surgery biz what Ralph Nader was to GM.
In Native Tongue (1991), burned-out reporter JOE WINDER investigates the mysterious disappearance of a pair of blue-tongued mango voles from the cut-rate Disneyland wannabe where he’s holed up as a PR flack, while at the same time keeping his eyes peeled for a shred of dignity.
SHAD, the hapless strip joint bouncer who hasn’t had an erection since he started working there, goes above and beyond the call of duty to help a dancer out of a jam in Strip Tease (1993).
AUGUSTINE, the idealistic, rich ne’er-do-well former law-student with too much time on his hands, is looking for something to believe in, and may have just found it in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1995’s Stormy Weather.
TOM KROME, a burned-out newspaper reporter who’s been dispatched to do a human-interest story on an eccentric black lottery winner, finds out some white supremist wannabes are out to kill her, in Lucky You (1997).
TWILLY SPREE, a bored (and mentally-unstable) rich kid, decides to engage in a little personal terrorism in the name of ecology, in 1999’s aptly-named Sick Puppy.
In Basket Case, JACK TAGGER, is a middle-aged investigative reporter banished to the obit desk, who ends up hot on the trail of a dead rock star.
In 2004’s Skinny Dip, ex-cop Mick Stranahan from Skin Tight returns, to help a damsel in distress who washes ashore on a bale of marijuana. But it’s hard to tell who the hero is at times. As P.I. THEODORE DEAVEY observes, “I wish I hadn’t taken this god-damned case–I’ve never run up against so many card-carrying fruitballs in all my life.”
Of course, there’s no shortage of fruitballs in any of Hiaasen’s “Florida novels.” Nature Girl (2006) boasts fugitive Seminoles, a half-ass telemarketeer and a foul-smelling stalker, while Star Island (2010) boasts the return of former governor Skink who makes his way out of the swamps to save a drug-addled former child pop star.
Bad Monkey (2013) introduced ANDREW YANCY, a former Monroe County detective hoping to get his old job back by tracking down a Medicare scam artist who appears to have died in a boating accident, leaving behind only an arm.
Skink’s back again — and even gets top billing — in Skink–No Surrender (2014), this time out to save a young girl from an Internet predator and a fate worse than death
Razor Girl (2016) sees the return of Yancy, still out to get his old job back, pinning his hopes on cracking a high-profile homicide involving an East Coast mobster really into swimwear, a Wisconsin accordion player trying to pass himself off as a redneck on a TV reality show and a beach sand thief, while Squeeze Me (2020), sees Angie Armstrong, “wildlife wrangler extraordinaire,” finds herself inadvertently on the trail of a kidnapped Palm Beach dowager whom the unnamed President (who lives just down the road) claims was the victim of a ravaging horde of immigrants.
* * * * *
Hiaasen, born and raised in South Florida, attended Emory University and graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Florida in 1974. He’s been with The Miami Herald since 1976. He currently writes a twice-weekly column for them. He lives with his family and pet snakes somewhere in the Florida Keys.
One more thing about Hiaasen’s gig at The Herald — humour columnist Dave Barry also works there, and in fact, his 1999 novel Big Trouble is essentially a kinder, gentler Hiaasen novel. Add a little more wickedness, and it coulda been written by Carl himself. Makes you wonder what’s in the water cooler down there, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, the 1996 film Striptease, based on Hiaasen’s novel, was supposed to be a major motion picture starring Demi Moore in pasties and new boobs, and Burt Reynolds in a Newt Gingrich hairpiece.
I say “Meh. Skip the movie, read the book again,” but Hiaasen insists that the scene featuring Burt Reynolds slathered from his neck to his toes with Vaseline is “one of the high points in modern American cinema.” Hiaasen is also the author of Team Rodent, an unsparing essay about the Disney empire, and two collections of newspaper columns, Kick Ass and Paradise Screwed.
You can also add children’s author to his list of achievements. His first YA novel, Hoot, is very much a typical Hiaasen novel, a sort of parallel “Florida” series aimed at a younger audience, a sort of ecological mystery, with an unlikely trio of misfit kids racing to save some endangered miniature owls from the the Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House scheduled to be built over their burrows. The book was subsequently awarded The Newbery Honor by the Association for Library Service to Children, which recognizes excellence in children’s literature. He’s since followed up on the success of Hoot success with Flush (2005), Scat (2009), Chomp (2012) Skink–No Surrender (2014), and most recently, Squim (2018).
“The best part about writing for kids,” Hiaasen admits, “is the piles of letters I get. Grown-ups might stop you in an airport and tell you they like the novels, but kids will sit down and write a three-page letter, complete with illustrations.”
- Hiaasen co-wrote two songs with the late, great hard-boiled rocker Warren Zevon, “Seminole Bingo” and “Rottweiler Blues.” Now how cool is that?
- “America’s finest satirical novelist.”
— The London Observer
- “(Hiaasen’s fiction is) unbelievably funny — tears-running-down-your-cheeks funny in spite of some pretty weighty themes like the destruction of the environment.”
— Louise Berkow, Cosmopolitan
- “…if you could use some wild escapism right now, Hiaasen is your guy. … Anyone who’s read him will know what a prime recommendation that is.”
— Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- “Carl Hiaasen remains the undefeated, unscored-upon conscience of Florida, maybe the conscience of the whole country. I laughed and laughed and laughed while I read Squeeze Me – until I remembered, hey, I live in Palm Beach!.”
— James Patterson
- Powder Burn (1981, by Carl Hiaasen & Bill Montalbano) | Kindle It!
- Trap Line (1982; by Carl Hiaasen & Bill Montalbano) | Kindle It!
- A Death in China (1984, by Carl Hiaasen & Bill Montalbano) | Kindle It!
THE FLORIDA SERIES
- Tourist Season (1986; Brian Keyes) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle It!
- Double Whammy (1988; R.J. Decker, Skink)
- Skin Tight (1989; Mick Stranahan)
- Native Tongue (1991; Joe Winder, Skink) | Buy this book
- Strip Tease (1993; Shad) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle It!
- Stormy Weather (1995; Augustine, Skink)
- Lucky You (1997; Tom Krome)
- Sick Puppy (1999; Skink) | Buy this book
- Basket Case (2002; Jack Tagger) | Buy this book
- Skinny Dip (2004; Mick Stranahan, Theodore Deavey, Skink) | Buy this book
- Nature Girl (2006) | Buy this book | Kindle It!
- Star Island (2010; Skink) | Buy this book | Kindle It!
- Bad Monkey (2013, Andrew Yancy) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Razor Girl (2016, Andrew Yancy) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Squeeze Me (2020; Angie Armstrong) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
THE KIDS’ BOOKS
- Hoot (2002) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Flush (2005) | Buy this book
- Scat (2009) | Buy this book | Kindle It!
- Chomp (2012) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Skink–No Surrender (2014; Skink) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Squirm (2018) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Naked Came The Manatee (1997; by Hiassen, Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan, Dave Barry, and nine other local Florida writers)
- Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World (1998; non-fiction) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen (1999; non-fiction) | Buy this book
- Paradise Screwed: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen (2001; non-fiction) | Buy this book
- The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport (2008) | Buy this book
- Assume the Worst (2018) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
The commencement address we all need…
- “Tart of Darkness” (2003, Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue)
- STRIPTEASE | Buy the video | Buy the DVD | Buy the Blu-Ray | Watch it now!
Based on the novel by Carl Hiaasen
Screenplay by Andrew Bergman
Directed by Andrew Bergman
Starring Demi Moore, Burt Reynolds, Armand Assante, Robert Patrick, Paul Guilfoyle
and Ving Rhames as SHAD
The book’s terrific, but this surprisingly misguided effort, only occasionally rises to the occasion. Now I know how Shad felt.
- Carl Hiaasen
The official web site.
- Carl Hiaasen: A Crime Reader’s Guide To The Classics
Neil Nyren takes us book by book into the wild, corrupt, uproarious world of Hiaasen’s Florida. (January 2020, CrimeReads)