Carl Hiaasen

Striptease (1996)

Striptease (1996)

(On DVD, June 2009): Carl Hiaasen’s particular brand of comic crime fiction can be tricky to swallow even on the page, so it’s not much of a shock to find out that this straight-up adaptation somehow fails to click. His usual strategy of surrounding a competent character with a bunch of idiots may be successful in a novel, but here it creates a comedy vacuum around lead Demi Moore, which becomes a problem since most scenes revolve around her. Hiaasen’s all-knowing narration can’t be used, and the uneasy mixture of comedy and violence becomes even more uneasy on-screen (even after toning down the book’s gratuitously blood-thirsty ending) Worse yet are the problems that the film creates for itself: While a film about strip-teasing is expected to show some flesh, the entire club sequences lose their charms quickly, especially when they still grind the film to a halt about three different times: it doesn’t help that Hiaasen’s twisty plot is snipped to a only a few thin threads that don’t create much suspense. Still, the film isn’t the disaster one could expect: Ving Rhames is hilarious in one of his first big-screen roles, whereas Burt Reynolds hits a late-career peak as a particularly perverted politician. The Miami locations are often well-used, and the whole thing is over before anyone has time to be really displeased.

Strip Tease, Carl Hiaasen

Strip Tease, Carl Hiaasen

Warner, 1993 (1996 reprint), 418 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60066-0

Submitted for your consideration: the strange idea that some good authors are worth reviewing once but not twice.

It’s a concept that touches upon the traditional definition of a hack: a professional writer who can be counted upon to deliver what’s expected. Less-kind definitions of “hack” focus on the mercenary intent of the writer as if it necessarily necessarily excluded any quality from the resulting work —but genre readers know better than that. Some professionals quickly learn that good formulas work consistently, leading to writers-as-brand names like Clive Cussler. The experience of reading their books remains consistent from one to the other: if it’s a thrill to read the first one and determine what makes it different from the rest of genre fiction, there’s little to say afterwards, especially in series where real change is kept to a minimum. (Cussler’s last few novels have been worth a review in part because he has started tinkering with his usual approach.) I find myself unable to review Robert B. Parke’s Spenser novels, for instance, even if I absolutely love them: they deliver exactly the same experience all the time: There’s little left to say except “Wonderful, another success in a long series.” In my just-finished quest to review all of Michael Connelly’s fiction at a pace of one novel per month, I often ran out of things to say beyond repeating Connelly’s strengths and seeing how the novels linked to previous books.

Which generally brings us to Carl Hiaasen’s particular brand of comic crime fiction in that I have never been disappointed by his books, but it’s hard to find anything distinctive to say once a first review has been written. His madcap novels of silly South Florida crimes each feature entirely different plots, generally new characters and strange new Floridian sub-cultures, but they all share a similar feel. All can boast of a large cast of characters, criss-crossing plotting, limpid writing and a light atmosphere nonetheless leading to tense moments. Hiaasen has found a winning formula, and there’s little reason for him to deviate from it. That makes him an utterly dependable authors, and one who deserves a massive monthly back-catalog reading project. Alas, it also makes it almost impossible to review Hiaasen on a monthly basis: There’s a limit to how much space a plot summary can take when the critical content of the review remains the same.

If I make an exception for Strip Tease, it’s that I haven’t reviewed Hiaasen in years, and I wanted to flag down why that was so. Furthermore, Strip Tease remains to this day the only one of Hiaasen’s non-juvenile crime novels to have been adapted to big screen. I never saw the 1996 film STRIPTEASE, but I can still remember the public titillation at the idea of then-hot Demi Moore playing the lead exotic dancer. Never mind that the movie was a critical flop and a commercial under-achiever: It’s probably still the only Hiaasen title that the vast public can recognize. (“Hey, look, there’s Demi Moore’s on the cover!”) I suppose that there’s something to be written about how Hiaasen’s fine-tuned style doesn’t lend itself to a flat film adaptation, but that will wait until I get to see the film.

As for the book itself, well, it’s all you’d expect from a Hiaasen novel: Decent characters (including a single mom strip-teasing to support herself and her daughter) faced against antagonists both evil and stupid, complex plotting, wonderful prose style, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the less glamorous side of Florida life, moments of well-executed tension, progressive politics and an epilogue that wraps up everything. No disappointment here: Just a good solid dark comedy. Read one Hiaasen, and that will be enough to tell you if you are likely to love the other ones. (You can even read them out of order.)

So don’t mind me as I spend the next few months reading through the entirety of Hiaasen’s work to date. Just don’t be surprised if I somehow don’t manage to review every single one of those books. Or if I end up discussing other things than the book when I do.

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…?