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Book review: <i>Tourist Season</i> by Carl Hiaasen



If this was a film, it would be Miami Blues, starring Sir Alec Baldwin.

Cover

Day-glo pink and orange under unremarkable text and a cartoon of a crocodile. In addition, my copy was one of those chop-shop library jobs and so actually quite excessively hideous, like Frankenstein's monster on Hawaiian Friday.

Plot

Miami, the mid-eighties, height of the blow and tourism era. When a suitcase washes up on the beach containing a dead vacationer with a toy alligator stuffed down his throat, the cops call it a mafia hit. Two tourist corpses later, however, and notes the police have been getting from some self-proclaimed terrorists called 'The Nights of December' start being taken seriously. When star newspaper columnist and anti-tourism, pro-environment campaigner Skip Wiley goes AWOL, a private detective named Brian Keyes discovers a connection between the terrorists and the writer. Brian winds up as the only one with the leads to stop Skip and his cadre before they kill again. The problem is, Brian and Skip were once good friends and colleagues, at least until Skip ran off with his partner.

The good

Well, Miami is an exciting setting, and Hiaasen is always comfortable there. Which is to say, it's the place he loves, and thus he sees its beauty and flaws magnified tenfold; his pet peeves (and favourite plot elements) of environmental vandalism and garish tourist-trappery are well in evidence here, adding, once again, a slightly unusual flavour to an otherwise pretty straightforward thriller.

Plotting is linear, but largely effective. Professionally paced, featuring solid central characters and effort put toward ensuring the half-wild, half-urban backdrop becomes a character in itself. Hiaasen's talent for juicy back-story is also in evidence, with minor and major characters (again, including the landscape) given enough past to keep us interested in their present.

Hiaasen's always had a good feel for timing when to throw some sex or violence into the enclosure, and there are thrills enough for fans of the genre, including a nice teasing climax on a deserted island off the coast.
I always thought it a pity that the movie of Striptease, one of Hiaasen's weaker books, imploded under the weight of Demi Moore's now-mystifying then-stardom and seems to have put paid to any more films being made from his material. Elmore Leonard's books have racked up five films to date, and personally I prefer Hiaasen, at least when he's on form. Despite the absence of Leonard's Tarantino-esque (or rather, Tarantino's Leonard-esque) dialogue, I think Hiaasen's best work has skilled pacing, trademark elements (corruption, the environment, black humour, a steamroller sense of the absurd-yet-plausible, stand-out bad guys) and a crispness that ought to make for great cinema in the right hands. There were rumours of Halle Berry starring in Lucky You, one of my favourites, recently, which could be fantastic if it ever materialises, and Big Trouble was basically a sloppy adaptation of a book which itself aped the trope Hiaasen made famous.

The bad

The simple problem is that there's a fair bit of space between this and Hiaasen's best. The setting has aged curiously well (which argues positively toward the universality of Hiaasen's pet topics) but this is a mixed blessing - the sweltering, sleaze-ridden eighties Miami of Skin Tight had a period zing which makes it much more fun to read now than this is, and all the critical praise inside the front cover of Tourist Season simply serves to show how the crime thriller (Hiaasen's brand included) has evolved over the last two decades.

Hiaasen's recurrent themes have also matured over the years - in Sick Puppy, one of his most recent, he hones a wicked edge to the cause of Florida's violated reserves before sinking it right in the guts of the ugly white men who profit from the rape. And all with a quarter of the proselytising found here. It's not preachy, per se, but too much space is devoted to the cause of the terrorists, and it slows Hiaasen's already measured plotting to a stroll through the woods.

There are deficiencies in the relationships of the main characters, too. Although I can forgive the author's stock characters (the plucky dames, the cynical cops, and the sane-but-crazy newsmen) it's harder to forgive the lapses in logic between their relationships, chiefly that between the good guys and Skip Wiley, journalist and enviro-terrorist. It's almost too pat to credit, yet it really seems that Hiaasen, confirmed cynic and good judge of human nature, is too sympathetic to Skip's cause to correctly balance the effects of his behaviour. Good cop Garcia, newspaper boss Cab Mulcahy and P.I. Keyes, who was actually jilted by Skip years before being kidnapped and beaten by same, all maintain an inexplicable desire to guard the interests of the nutty writer. I have nothing against the character of a charismatically amoral crusader, but as his acquaintances' inexplicable fealty forms the core of the plot (and keeps dabbing the brakes in the middle third) then I'd have to call it a bad writerly decision to balance so much weight on this idea.

Look, if you want sleaze, sex and big hair on the radio read Skin Tight, or if you want unusual thrillers with a combination of fun and righteous indignation at their core, read Lucky You or Sick Puppy.

What I learnt

Damn those Floridian property developers!

In short

Title: Tourist Season
Author: Carl Hiaasen
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
ISBN: 0446695718
Year published: 2005
Pages: 416
Genre(s): crime fiction, thriller

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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