Murder is serious business, and while I’m all in favor of elevating crime fiction to the level of literature by virtue of the fine writers and finely drawn plots, mysteries really must have a murder.
It’s the pinnacle of crime, after all, and if a writer is careful enough not to drop a thread, we enthusiasts will gladly take the ride. But we’re skeptical. Drop one thread, we’re gone.
Carl Hiaasen’s Tourist Season contains murder and Hiaasen drops no threads in the telling – he drops the whole ball of yarn, threads snarled everywhere, from the very first page. This is crime humor, an oxymoron if ever there was, but written with such precision and good humor, we habituated mystery readers gave him a critical look back in 1986 and have been reading his books whenever he feels like writing another. So far, there are 11.
Hiaasen is a veteran investigative reporter with The Miami Herald, covering for many years the land scandals, medical schemes, swindles of all kinds and the desecration of South Florida. He’s won prestigious journalism awards for investigative reporting, and this first novel is his alter ego fictionalizing what he’d really like to say and do about the sleazeballs who ruined his pristine, delicate place on Earth.
Theodore Bellamy and his wife, Nell, are in Miami from Evanston, Ill., for a Shriners’ convention. Motorcycles were shipped down, cheap motel rooms booked on the beach, flash parades planned, lots of booze taken aboard – you know, a convention. Right away, on page one, you envision catastrophe. You just can’t imagine the magnitude of catastrophe that befalls Teddy, the city of Miami Beach and nearly the whole state of Florida.
At about this time, Skip Wiley, The Miami Herald’s prized daily columnist who coincidentally writes about the same unconscionable moral corruption as Hiaasen does, is about to take matters in his own hands to purge Florida of its tourists, snowbirds, theme parks, subdivisions and Shriners’ conventions. Shriner Bellamy is the first to go, fed to a crocodile. Then comes the Golden Goose president of the chamber of commerce, B.D. “Sparky” Harper, found at sea stuffed into a small suitcase. Sparky’s hideous murder occupies the headlines and rivets the attention of the Miami Beach police force; Bellamy’s disappearance is low priority at that point and everyone knows that you don’t tread on Shriners, who mobilize into a militia to find their fez-mate.
Meanwhile, dogs are disappearing from backyards, tourists are dropping like flies, fear grips the tropics, crocodiles are spitting out eyeglasses and sensible shoes and getting fat in the Everglades. Skip Wiley is fired for insubordination of the schizophrenic kind and goes to ground for his tour de force that will purify Florida of all squishy retirees and close the northern door forever – the Orange Bowl Football Classic’s extravagant halftime show watched by 8 million winter-weary, weather-envious potential new residents and visitors.
Tourist Season is Hiaasen’s first murder mystery, and that’s where you should start reading this ingenious writer the London Observer has called “America’s finest satirical novelist.” Next month, we’re back to the skin-crawling crime fiction some wouldn’t want to read just before bedtime.
Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author. Reach him at JeffMannix.com.