April 01, 1994

Perfect Crime

Filed under: Archive,Books


Strip Tease

by Carl Hiaasen


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

If you were to browse the shelves for Carl Hiaasen’s five novels you might tend to pass them by. Double Whammy has on its cover a buggy-eyed bass munching a hundred dollars US.  Tourist Season has a crocodile with an I-love-Florida cap hanging off its premolars and Skin Tight proclaims a close-up of an oiled navel with not enough bikini to write the price of the book on it. Hiaasen’s latest, Strip Tease, pushes the envelope as they say, with a hot pink jacket featuring a vertical banana- peeled on one side into a scrotal curl. All a bit gamey you might think, not for the likes of us Picador people.

But turn to the blurbs and every literary reviewer in the known world is vying to express their own form of unconditional regard. Better than literature, says P.J. O’Rourke- and, while I never thought I’d ever agree with that particular Republican reptile, he’s absolutely right.

There’ll be many readers who have long followed the Hiassen trail and so my effusions may seem quaintly belated. But crime fiction is like that – there are always renaissances and rediscoveries- Jim Thompson for instance, or Charlotte Jay and the other Wakefield writers. Elmore Leonard’s writing career was already long established before he became Exponential in the early Eighties.

Which is about when Carl Hiassen appeared. Tourist Season, published first in 1986, more or less coincides with one of Elmore Leonard’s best vintages – the Swag, Stick, Glitz period. And there are debts to Elmore, not least the Miami and Hispanic settings. Lt Vincent Mora and Hiassen’s Sergeant Al Garcia could be fellow troublers.

But Carl Hiassen has taken the crime form beyond Leonard’s elegant brevity into a kind of gonzo black comedy. His raucous bookcovers capture most of the ferocity but not enough of the canny wit of his work. At times Hiassen’s savage farce suggests Tom Sharpe and  his excoriation of public institutions bears all the toxic scorn of Hunter S. Thompson in the days of Watergate. His novels range across TV sport- and, by extension, TV evangelism- Hard Copy journalism, cosmetic surgery, the vagaries of civil law, and in his most recent novel, the intricacies of postmodern congressional graft.

Strip Tease reveals Hiaasen in continuingly good form. Less cluttered than Tourist Season, less chaotic than Skin Tight, it has a fluency that might seem like a well-tried recipe. But one person’s formula is another’s recurrent motif and the array of human behaviour from the venal to the extremely venal makes for compulsive reading. Tom Wolfe brought the precision of journalism into comic fiction in Bonfire of the Vanities and Thomas Pynchon elaborately satirises the feral nature of modern times in Vineland. But for all that, Carl Hiaasen has a sharpness and compression of ideas that is more exhilirating.

An investigative reporter for the Miami Herald, Hiassen knows the practices of the devious and the vulgarity of power. But there is none of the usual cynical weariness of crime naturalism. Hiassen’s characters- well, the handful of decent ones- are still trying to make a difference. In Strip Tease, Erin a former FBI employee is being hounded by her ex, a pill freak who steals wheelchairs. Having, through the grotesque imperfections of the legal system, lost custody of her daughter, Erin vows revenge. In order to pay her huge legal fees she works as a dancer in a nudie bar where she witnesses a drunken stockbroker get bottled by another patron. It turns out the felon is a David Dilbeck, an erotomaniac who also controls the lucrative sugar lobby in Congress.

Hiassen’s plot is not only full of smart turns and just deserts it also carries a satiric payload that Ralph Nader would be pleased with. These novels may be capers but they reveal the kind of detail that renders them political in the public interest. You might be wondering about whether there is such a thing as nude wrestling in creamed corn after reading this novel but you will also have learnt a little more about the workings of political fixers and the mechanisms of US trade protection.

And despite the fact that the Cuban cop, Al Garcia, returns, more clearly defined and likeable than ever, and that Hiaasen gets a lot of mileage out of his bouncer- sorry, floor manager- Shad, it is Erin who turns the power tables. She may not be VI Warshawsky but in the end she doesn’t need too much rescuing.

Carl Hiaasen writes funny books full of knowing detail. His characters listen to rock’n’roll, and freely inhabit the landscape of American desire but we are never left in a state of mindless narcissism. Hiaasen is a clever moralist.  He makes you laugh and he makes  you think and, as he peels his way through Strip Tease, he certainly makes you wonder what’s going to happen next.

The Adelaide Review, No.126, April, 1994, p.26.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment