"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
Carl Hiaasen has written one of the most-entertaining series of novels in a long time. Tony Hillerman even calls 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 private eye novels books Jonathan Latimer cut loose with Bill Crane except for one thing: there's no real series character here. Or even, often, a private eye.
Still, a case could be made...
The only recurring characters in the series are SKINK, the former-governor of Florida and present swamp-rat, now living somewhere in the Everglades, and swooping out of the wilds every now and then to scoop up some delicious roadkill and to right some grievious 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 all relatively young, but with enough disillusionment and experience in their lives to make up for it. They're usually former something-or-others (often journalists), who failed or burned out, adrift, wandering through life, walking wounded, although they generally view their lethargy as fine with them. It's usually a women in trouble that snaps them out of it, with or without some provocation from Skink. Suddenly, they have a cause to champion, and sooner or later Sgt. Garcia shows up to bear witness to the body count.
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."
Much could be said about all of Hiaasen's 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) introduces 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.
* * * * *
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 film Striptease, based on Hiaasen's novel, was supposed to be a major motion picture starring Demi Moore in pasties 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 recent 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, albeit 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) and most recently, the previously mentioned Skink--No Surrender.
"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."
He's co-written two songs with the late, great hard-boiled rocker Warren Zevon, "Seminole Bingo" and "Rottweiler Blues." Now how cool is that?
-- The London Observer
-- Louise Berkow, Cosmopolitan
The commencement address we all need...
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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