Carl Hiaasen’s monkey antics

BAD MONKEY by Carl Hiaasen

There’s a sharp remark by Harold Pinter about the risk a successful author runs of becoming a prisoner of style and subject matter. While writing one of his later plays, Pinter said he found himself thinking: “There he goes again.”

And the trap of familiar tone and setup is even greater in populist fiction, where it is common for a star author to be given a “uniform edition”, making the books all look the same. This is often only fair, because the writer has for some time been ensuring uniformity of narrative and character.

Outside of his hardcore fan base, there was a sense that the American writer Carl Hiaasen had succumbed to such lucrative reshuffling by numbers.

Hiaasen, an award-winning reporter, invented a genre of crime fiction with a series of books — beginning in the mid-1980s with Tourist Season and Double Whammy — set in his native Florida. They drew on the tendency towards extremities of property development and political corruption in a state where both crime and climate were prone to violence and a febrile political culture was encouraged by Miami’s proximity to Cuba and the apparent closeness to insanity of many elected officials and judges.

By the millennium election year, when the choice between George W Bush and Al Gore came down to the number of holes punched in certain pieces of paper in Florida, where the Republican candidate’s brother happened to be governor, it was routine for pundits in both the US and the United Kingdom to comment that the leadership of the free world had become hijacked by a Carl Hiaasen plotline.

Unfortunately, as life imitated the writer, his novels seemed increasingly to resemble each other, a repetition signalled by dangerously interchangeable two-word titles: Sick Puppy, Basket Case, and so on. There were also reliable signs of a writer tired with his main line of work: forays into other genres (kids’ books), increasingly long gaps between books, a change of British publisher.

Happily, perhaps goaded by Tom Wolfe’s decision to write what was in most respects except length a Carl Hiaasen novel — last year’s dark Miami-set farce, Back to Blood — Hiaasen seems to have decided to show us and Wolfe how it should really be done.

From its opening page, there is a confidence, economy and enjoyability to Bad Monkey that give the impression of a writer back in love with his franchise. A couple on a honeymoon deep-sea fishing trip in the Florida Keys reel in a severed arm which, for reasons of policing logistics, comes to be kept in the freezer of Andrew Yancy, a former detective who has been downgraded to the post of restaurant inspector (“roach patrol”) after sodomising his married lover’s husband with a vacuum cleaner in a fit of passionate jealousy.

Seeing the line-caught arm as a possible leg-up back to the force, Yancy traces the connections to the Bahamas, where vivid characters include Eve Stripling, the widow of the presumed former owner of the shark-nibbled limb, and Neville, a voodoo-obsessed eccentric with a pet monkey, which, in a typical Hiaasen flourish, he claims has appeared in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. This pet wrangler is the heir to a local homestead sold to property developers.

People and plot, however, are always secondary to the writer’s jauntily barbed narrative voice. The dominant tone is an Amisian (Kingsley and Martin) laconic exaggeration, so that the victim of Yancy’s assault “had required some specialised medical care but was more or less ambulatory within a week”. The back stories of minor characters are nailed in a phrase: for example, someone who “had made such a killing in the commodities market that he remained revoltingly wealthy after losing two-thirds of his fortune in a divorce”. Dialogue sounds screen-ready, with a suspected fraudster pleading: “I’ve got substance issues … this is not the arc I mapped out for my life.”

But the greatest pleasure is the feeling that, through long residency and his journalistic beat, Hiaasen owns this location. Sentences seem to have escaped from an anti-guidebook to Florida. “The typical Key West murder is a drunken altercation over debts, dope or dance partners.” Or: “The Miami-Dade morgue had been designed with a contingency for a worst-case airline crash.” A condominium Yancy inspects has a “a polyp-shaped swimming pool with a slightly discoloured kiddie pond”. Elsewhere, we learn why the cops regard born-again Christians as the most dangerous drivers and the “low-pirate” tricks of sports-fishing crews.

While possibly ensuring that no reader ever revisits Florida, Hiaasen has avoided “going there again” in the sense Pinter meant. In Bad Monkey, he has escaped from the bondage of publishing concept and reader expectation to produce a novel that is as enjoyable to read as it seems to have been for him to write. The hope must be that he and we are able to go there again. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

Mark Lawson’s Enough Is Enough or The Emergency Government is published by Picador

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