Tricky Business, Dave Barry

Putnam, 2002, 320 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14924-4

Regardless of what’s actually in Florida’s water supply, its place at the problem child of American states is, by now, quite secure. It’s always been, really, but its 2000-2005 temper tantrums, what with hanging chads, repeated hurricanes, Terry Schiavo and assorted weirdness, have made its weirdness unassailable, even from Texas. Is it any coincidence if Florida has also developed the funniest school of crime-fiction writers? This is unlikely to be a coincidence.

Dave Barry, of course, has no reputation to establish: The Pulitzer Prize on his mantelpiece is license enough to write whatever he wants. But beyond the award-winning humour column and the best-selling humour books, there is always time for something else. After Big Trouble, whose underrated movie adaptation you may have caught at one time or another, Dave Barry tries a second full-length crime novel with Tricky Business. The result is as pleasant as anything you may imagine from Dave Barry, but I can’t shake the stray thought that it may be better experienced… as a movie.

Not that it’s unworthy as a book-bound piece of fiction. As with Big Trouble, it slaps together an ensemble cast of unlikely Florida residents in a crime caper novel whose madcap nature emerges full-blown during the last half of the novel. In Tricky Business‘s case, all characters eventually converge toward a floating casino, the Extravaganza of the Seas, where a high-stakes robbery is about to take place. There can’t be that much money involved without organized crime, and there can’t be organized crime without police presence. Add to that a pair of seniors out for a night of fun and a mediocre rock band headlined by a guy still living with his mother and you’ve got the ingredients required for three hundred pages of fun.

And fun it is, or at the very least unpretentious beach reading. Tricky Business may not score all that high on the laugh-o-meter, but it’s hypnotically readable in less than an evening: The chuckles are constant throughout and the protagonists are drawn with some skill. The novel isn’t equally successful with all characters (the bad guys, most notably, are flat and not particularly well distinguished), but we don’t need them to go through the novel.

As far as the plot is concerned, this is a novel with a lot of movement, but little overarching plot: People move frantically to get on board, and then from one end of the ship to the other as the bullets start flying, but readers without the patience to piece together an intricate whodunit shouldn’t worry about keeping track of who’s doing what. Tricky Business takes place on a single day (you’re unlikely to spend any more time reading the book itself) and ends as sweetly as would befit a comic novel.

Not that anyone seriously reads Barry for the plot. In terms of jokes, Barry makes the most out of a flatulent character and an “Action News” station whose newscasters are a bigger danger to themselves than valuable news sources. The rest of the novel is a lot more sedate despite the sex and violence sprinkled throughout. Tricky Business is entirely safe to read on the bus: you’re unlikely to be raked with laughter from one page to another.

But don’t let that discourage you from picking it up if you’re in the mood for a little criminal silliness. While it’s certainly not better than the rest of the Florida school of comic crime-fiction (Carl Hiassen and Laurence Shames are generally more dependable), there’s still enough in here to keep anyone interested. Why not wait for the movie adaptation and buy the paperback?

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