Double Whammy, Carl Hiaasen

Warner, 1987, 320 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35276-4

Over the years, I never had the luck to actually sit down and read one of Carl Hiaasen’s novels despite the good things heard about them. That changed when Double Whammy landed in my reading stack. If it’s any indication of what Hiaasen is capable, I just may have found a new favourite author.

In the mystery genre, Hiaasen is often mentioned as being part of the “Florida school”, along with such writers as Lawrence Shames, Dave Berry and James W. Hall: Apart from the Sunshine State as a common setting, all of these writers also share a highly atypical sense of humour, especially when you compare it to the usual dour brand of crime fiction. I’m always a sucker for silly laughs, so it was only a matter of time before I got to Hiaasen’s stuff.

Suffice to say that Double Whammy is an interesting introduction. Would you expect, for instance, a thrilling laugh-filled novel about bass fishing? It starts when R.J. Decker, a Miami-based private detective (also an ex-newspaper photographer, also an ex-husband, also an ex-convict), is hired to catch a bass tournament cheater in flagrante delicto. Soon enough, clues then bodies accumulate and it’s hard for Decker to deny that he’s stuck in a situation that goes way beyond getting the biggest fish.

The laughs are obviously Double Whammy‘s biggest attraction. Hiaasen’s sarcastic eye for details does wonders at satirizing redneck America and the dangerous silliness that seems to permeate Florida. His improbable characters at generously fleshed-out: even the bit players all have a distinguishing trait or two. The narrative often takes tangents to describe an aspect of Floridian life or another, with smile-stretching results.

But Hiaasen’s less overt accomplishment is to manage a delicate balance between tragedy and comedy without renouncing the funny stuff. There is a lot of truly nasty material in this novel, and a lesser writer may have been unable to reconcile the two. Beyond the murder and maiming of sympathetic characters, Double Whammy makes sure to remain in the domain of unlikely reality, rather than plunge ahead into a straight-out comedic vein. (Read Dave Berry’s stuff for that… not that there’s anything wrong with a pure comedy) Beyond the laughter, there is an array of serious issues brought forth in the novel, from environmental concerns to the easy media manipulation of crowds. But here too, the message doesn’t overshadow the plot as Hiaasen moves his pieces too quickly to dwell on any single element.

Indeed, Double Whammy holds its own in the plot department against thicker and more serious novels. Anything you think you can depend upon at the novel’s beginning is overturned sooner or later. The protagonist is revealed to be someone with a bottomless reservoir of issues. Characters switch allegiance. Twists abound. Revelations are made. Readers are thrilled.

All of that would be for naught if it wasn’t for Hiaasen’s impeccable style. So-called “humorous” crime fiction is not an easy thing to write and several writers have only managed a marginal success trying to do so (Joseph Wambaugh, I’m looking at you). Here, fortunately, we’re in good hands: The prose is straightforward and the scenes fly by. The quick-paced resolution ties everything together. Truly excellent beach reading, should you be so inclined.

In short, a wonderful introduction to the Hiaasen oeuvre, and one that is likely to keep me coming back for more. Given my existing predilection for Shames and Barry, I just have to wonder –what is it they put in Florida’s water supply…?

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