Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375
As an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald , Carl Hiaasen focused on the corruption in the business world and in politics that negatively affected the Florida environment. The issues and the people that served as fodder for his columns are fictionalized in his novels, forming the basis for outlandish...
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- Critical Essays
As an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald, Carl Hiaasen focused on the corruption in the business world and in politics that negatively affected the Florida environment. The issues and the people that served as fodder for his columns are fictionalized in his novels, forming the basis for outlandish characters and situations. The novels that Hiaasen coauthored with fellow journalist William B. Montalbano are conventional works of detective and action fiction encompassing such subjects as the cocaine trade, smuggling, and murder on foreign soil. These novels do not have the characteristics that make Hiaasen’s later work noteworthy. Hiaasen introduced his distinctive style and themes in his first solo novel, Tourist Season. Claiming that Florida produces stories and people as bizarre as those in his novels, Hiaasen created a distinctive genre of comedy mysteries, also described as environmental thrillers, which hold a world of outsized ecology-destroying crooks and promoters, greedy businessmen, corrupt politicians, obtuse tourists, confused retirees, hard-luck rednecks, and crazed ecoteurs. The writer views this world with a sardonic eye and a wildly absurdist wit that stings any who by thought or deed threaten the environment in south Florida or who in any way deceive their fellow citizens.
Hiaasen protagonists who stand against crooked schemers include journalists who have become amateur detectives, former state investigators turned fishermen, a private investigator, and occasionally a woman. Usually central characters, after dealing with absurdly outlandish complications, are successful in preventing bad guys from achieving their unlawful, often antienvironmental ends, and they frequently contribute to such villains meeting an outrageously funny demise, such as a hit man impaled on a stuffed swordfish.
Hiaasen’s first solo novel, Tourist Season, allowed him to give full rein to his offbeat humor and imagination. A group of fanatic but inept activists want to rid Florida of all perceived problems by terrorizing its tourists and developers. Tourists are kidnapped, thrown into a pool, and awarded freedom if they can swim across it without being eaten by the resident alligator—but none make it. A local politician’s body is discovered in a suitcase with a toy alligator in his throat, and an Orange Bowl Queen is kidnapped during a game by one of the terrorists who is a former Miami Dolphins football star. The leader of the militant environmentalists is Skip Wiley, a former columnist for the Miami Herald whose lawless, militant measures probably represent many of Hiaasen’s own fantasies. Protagonist Brian Keyes, a reporter turned private investigator, eventually solves the mystery, saves the Orange Bowl Queen, and confronts the ecoterrorist leader before the latter is blown up on an island rezoned for dynamiting. The last act of the wounded leader before the island explodes is to climb a tree to put a nested eagle to flight.
The comic mystery Double Whammy combines Florida landscape overdevelopment with a story of rigged big-money bass-fishing tournaments. Protagonist R. J. Decker, a news photographer turned private detective, is hired to investigate wrongdoing on the bass-fishing circuit. Decker enlists the help of a deranged hermit named Clinton “Skink” Tyree, a former Florida governor who idealism caused him to vacate his office when the surrounding corruption became unbearable and to flee into the swamp where he ate roadkill and became a prankster-ecoterrorist. Skink is a wildly bizarre figure who appears in three other Hiaasen novels (Sick Puppy, Native Tongue, and Stormy Weather) but becomes more of a teacher-helper than avenger. In Double Whammy, Decker and Skink discover nefarious connections among bass-fishing tournaments, television shows, an outdoor Christian network, and an evangelist real-estate developer who has built his newest lake-and-town project on a polluted landfill that will not sustain aquatic life. The novel also includes a macabre murderer who threatens victims by carrying a pit bull’s severed head locked onto his arm. Critical comments praise the writing style and macabre-funny aspects of the plot, and a sports magazine has commended Hiaasen’s comprehensive knowledge of the cheating schemes plaguing fishing tournaments as well as the political corruption depriving Florida of much of its wetlands.
Hiaasen, for the source of his plot in Native Tongue, again turns to such south Florida issues as multiple theme parks, endangered species, and overdevelopment. The hero, Joe Winder, is a burned-out newspaperman reduced to being a public relations hack for a Walt Disney World Resort-like theme park in the Florida Keys. The park is owned by a mobster in the federal Witness Protection Program who wants to further develop Key Largo by bulldozing land and erecting condominiums and golf courses. However, his plans fall apart when two endangered mango voles, part of a popular park exhibit, disappear and Winder and former governor Skink conspire to thwart his plans. The intrigue culminates in the park’s burning down and the landscape’s being temporarily undisturbed. The ruthless developer is ultimately killed by a hit man as a result of his past organized-crime connections. However, the novel’s most outlandish villain is a chief of security so reliant on steroids that he drags an intravenous infusion set along with him. Although he menaces Winder, he meets a perverse fate by drowning in a water tank while being sodomized by the park’s performing dolphin. Most reviewers found the novel inventive, satirically rich, and convincing in conveying a environmental message.
The first Hiaasen novel to make the best-seller list, Strip Tease, is perhaps the best known owing to its adaptation as a motion picture in 1996 with Demi Moore and Burt Reynolds. However, more significant, it marks Hiaasen’s first woman protagonist. Erin Grant is a well-realized and sympathetic character who dances at a topless club to make enough money to gain custody of her child from her former husband, a petty thief specializing in stolen wheelchairs. When an unbalanced politician develops an unhealthy attraction to Erin, he sets in motion a chain of events that end in murder. The novel encompasses corrupt politicians controlled by ruthless sugar-industry magnates with Cuban interests and touches on custody battles and feminist concerns about women forced to strip to earn a living. The villains are less comic than in preceding novels, yet blackly humorous elements are not lacking. Among them are a widely known congressman slathered head to foot in Vaseline, death by a golf club, and the mad search for a snake to replace the deceased prop of one stripper. The novel, superior to its screen adaptation, is an effective indictment of the powerful sugar lobby wrapped in a black comedy about upscale strip clubs.
In this screwball Florida escapade treating antienvironmental crooks, villain Chaz Perrone, an inept, shady marine scientist hopes to make a fast buck by doctoring water samples so that a ruthless agribusiness tycoon can continue to illegally dump fertilizer into the endangered Everglades. When Perrone suspects that his wife, Joey, has learned about his scam, he pushes her overboard from a cruise liner in the Atlantic. However, unbeknown to him, his wife survives the fall by clinging to a bale of Jamaican pot and is pulled from the ocean by Mick Stranahan, a retired investigator for the Florida State Attorney’s Office who is now a loner fisherman in a waterfront bungalow. Mick, making a second appearance as a Hiaasen protagonist (the first was in Skin Tight), persuades Joey not to immediately report her husband’s crime to the police, but instead to play dead and with Mick’s help to bedevil Perrone until he incriminates himself and gives away his scam. Joey proceeds to taunt and haunt her homicidal husband, whose nerves become so frayed that his work suffers. His erratic behavior causes his cohorts in pollution to grow uneasy. Meanwhile Mick finds that despite six failed marriages and island solitude, he is still capable of romance. Mick and Joey, as a team, survive and overcome attacks from the villains, exact revenge on Perrone, and affectionately find each other. The story is an engaging, amusing, and satirical romp with ever-present Hiaasen environmental themes. More than a few critics have noted that the novel marks the author at the top of his comic form and brings back an appealing protagonist who may well appear again. The novel has been considered for screenplay adaptation.