Hiaasen's BASKET CASE: hilarious mystery novel about the *last* newspaperpocalypse

Carl Hiassen's 2003 comic mystery novel Basket Case is vintage Hiaasen: madcap, romantic, silly, and deft. The dialog is funny, the setting -- a Florida newsroom at the moment just before the web changed newspapers forever -- utterly contemporary.

Jack Tagger, the book's hero, was busted from ace investigative reporter down to obit writer for daring to dress down his paper's new owner, the odious media baron's scion Race Maggad II. Now he labors in obscurity as the newspaper is taken apart by its new, profit-hungry corporate overlords, and he morbidly obsesses about the deaths he chronicles in the (shrinking) obit section.

But Tagger finds himself back on the trail of a hot story when Jimmy Stoma, the lead singer of a legendary rock band called Slut Puppies, dies while diving in the Bahamas. A routine interview with the widow -- a hot pop singer whose single scored big on MTV because it was directed by Oliver Stone and because she showed her pubes in it -- doesn't jibe with the facts as they emerge, and before long, Tagger is investigating the widow for the murder of her husband.

Hiaasen's a versatile and extremely comic writer, who has turned his hand to essays and (lately), wonderful kids' books. But my favorite Hiaasen novels are his mysteries, most of which feature a fictional ex-governor of Florida who has turned wild-man, living in the Everglades and eating roadkill and punishing wrongdoers, calling himself "Skink."

Basket Case is a rare, non-Skink Hiaasen novel, but it is nevertheless the perfect Hiaasen. I picked it up at the Miami airport on the way home from Christmas break (I'd read everything in my holiday stack) and found myself devouring it in huge drafts, as Hiaasen novels often inspire me to do.

One fascinating thing about this book is how the two main McGuffins -- the newspaper industry and the record business -- have faded into obscurity over a few short years. Was there really a time when we wrung our hands about newspapers dying because of profit-maddened congloms instead of the Internet?

I wish Hiaasen would get back to writing mysteries (though not at the expense of kids' books like Hoot!). Until he does, I think I'll just keep on re-reading the old ones. Like John D McDonald, Hiaasen is a brilliant chronicler of his time, a merciless lampooner of corruption and idiocy, and his palpable, bittersweet love for Florida is truly touching.

Basket Case


  1. I like Hiaasen’s earlier stuff more than his most recent work; _Native Tongue_ and _Strip Tease_ (the one the Demi Moore movie was based on) were my favourites. _Basket Case_ is pretty good, though.

    Hiaasen, like all good-hearted people, was a Warren Zevon fan, and made a reference to a Zevon song in one of the early books. This eventually led to his co-writing a couple of Zevon songs (“Seminole Bingo” and “Rottweiler Blues” on the _Mutineer_ album), and later to Zevon writing a song called “Basket Case” which is supposed to be a kind of companion to the novel (it’s on his _My Ride’s Here_ album).

  2. Basket Case was great (as are his other Florida capers like Sick Puppy, Stormy Weather, Double Whammy, etc.), but your headline mentions Nature Girl.

  3. His books are incredibly good!

    The longer I live in Florida, the less unusual Hiaasen’s characters seem. I have met some really out there people here.

    1. I’m just oveer half way through Nature Girl and I love it so far. Having read Lucky You, Strip Tease, and Skin Tight so far, he’s quickly becoming a fave of mine. I love how everything takes place in Florida (though I’m not from there), and it’s as though he makes the place magical with his insane characters.

  4. The death of newspapers is greatly exaggerated. Outside of the US reading (and dare I say it, literacy) is still quite common and newspapers are still bought and read.

  5. All fun books. Once I discovered Hiaasen I devoured all his books in a matter of weeks and then regretted that I didn’t ration them better.

  6. I love reading Hiaasen, and Native Tongue was my favorite. The stories are a little formulaic,and there’s serious karma involved. Anybody who does bad things to animals or the environment typically meets a bad end, which is nice. These are often comical such as getting molested/drowned by a dolphin with a bad attitude. I live in Florida, and there is plenty of weirdness to serve as subject material. To see more check out an interview Hiaasen did on 60 minutes a few years back. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/04/15/60minutes/main688458.shtml

  7. I too like Hiassen, but after reading 4 of his novels have found his overall plot and character process to be formulaic. It’s sad when you can guess what will be happening a few chapters ahead before you ever get to them. He’s still a good read and a great writer. Just wish he’d throw some unknown pitches my way.

  8. I love reading Carl Hiaasen, but like others wish he’d get back to writing some adult books.

    And like others I love reading his Miami Herald pieces – even from across the Atlantic and despite having never visited Florida.

  9. Actually I think Hiaasen’s take is perfect. The reason we think newspapers are endangered by the internet is that large media congloms have ruined so many of them. If papers spent more time on local content, local issues and actual reporting instead of reformatting the AP and Reuters content and passing off press releases as news they would be a lot more relevant and a lot harder to replace.

    Take a lesson radio, one-size-fits-all formats (soft rock, country, etc.) that share the same music between 15 markets are profitable in the short term, but unique programming will endure over time.

  10. I read this book a few years ago and as a young journalist found it hilarious and heartbreaking.

    There are so few fictional pieces that actually get newsrooms, newspapers and newspaper people right. And they’re almost always by newspaper people.

    Also pitch perfect:

    The newspaper scenes from “The Wire” and the entirety of the 1994 Ron Howard film “The Paper” starring Michael Keaton.

  11. I read this book a few years ago and as a young journalist found it hilarious and heartbreaking.

    There are so few fictional pieces that actually get newsrooms, newspapers and newspaper people right. And they’re almost always by newspaper people.

    Also pitch perfect:

    The newspaper scenes from “The Wire” and the entirety of the 1994 Ron Howard film “The Paper” starring Michael Keaton.

  12. Just a terminological niggle: A McGuffin is the object pursued or sought in a thriller (e.g., a Maltese falcon). The newspaper- and record-biz elements of the book are background or setting.

    Speaking of newspapers–it could be argued that part of the current crisis is precisely the result of the Engulf & Devour consolidation of previously independent papers. Big-corp revenue expectations (often fueled by the debt load incurred by highly-leveraged financing schemes) distorted the whole enterprise, which left newsrooms ill-prepared to meet the challenges of Craigslist, the internet, and so on. The pathologies of consolidation and asset-stripping (however disguised by financial hand-waving) are pretty well documented.

    And yes, Hiaasen is a terrific writer with a finely tuned sense of the grotesque, the outrageous, and the slimey. Thanks to the urging of the late Charles Brown I’ve discovered the Scots near-equivalent, Christopher Brookmyre, who is a bit farther out there. (And we should not forget Gregory MacDonald, who is a kind of godfather to these writers.)

  13. Hiassen has often said that his fictional crimes are inspired by the stuff the guys on the crime desk come back to the Herald offices to write up, most notably the real estate agent found in Biscayne Bay with a rubber alligator down his throat.

    People who don’t live in Florida think “Jayzus, this guy has a great imagination, but that shit could never really happen”.

    Those of us who do think “yep, coulda happened.”

  14. If you’ve run out of Hiaasen’s books and still need to feed your deranged Florida jones, you should try reading Tim Dorsey. Start with _Florida Roadkill_ and work your way forward.

  15. Actually, I think conglomerate takeovers, not the Web, are still the leading cause of newspaper deaths. Too many papers are saddled with big corporate debts from takeovers, which their new absentee owners think they can make back by cutting jobs, consolidating operations, and using canned copy from wire services instead of community-specific reporting. They become less relevant, the community has less of a stake in them, and the new owner has less of a stake in keeping them going if they’re not a cash cow. Newspapers, especially those with a hybrid online presence, still have a roll to play; bloggers are often amateurish and unreliable, and Web news services aren’t usually local. If it weren’t for the corporate Big Brother factor, I think a lot more papers could weather the Internet storm.

  16. Hmmm. My newspaper is still posting 63% advertising on a daily basis and sometimes higher, and is going to be in business as a dead tree edition until tiny, roll-up media readers transplant all printed media in every aspect of life. The internet has changed the way we do some things, such as taking the opportunity to make revenue from the internet, and that has only added to our customer base and prestige. Don’t worry, though, you aren’t the only one who makes such generalizations out of ignorance.

  17. I absolutely love Hiaasen’s work. My favorite is probably Lucky You since it was the first I read. I’ve since read every scrap of fiction he’s written, more than once. The books have a restorative power.

    The closest a description of Hiaasen’s style is a cross between Donald E. Westlake and John D. McDonald. But funnier.

    Also I beg to differ with OldNelson. Hiaasen’s writing is many things but formulaic isn’t one of them. Yes, there are similar recurring elements, and he certainly has an agenda, but not a formula. Or maybe I’m just enjoying the story and the characters so much that I don’t notice. The bad guys always get their just deserts. Does that count as formula?

    I too would prefer not to wait for some more of most demented plot points Hiaasen has come up with, but I think it will be a while. Having children makes some people see the world with fresh unjaundiced eyes. Odds are there will be no more seriously twisted adult Hiaasen books until his kids are old enough to grasp black comedy.

    Daddy, what are you writing.

    Well this Rotweiller latched onto the bad guy’s arm and wouldn’t let go, so the bad guy shot him. But the dog still wouldn’t let go he sawed the… uh… hmmm… how ’bout we go watch Flipper…

  18. Sad to say I find that this, my favourite genre, is better written by women than men. I haven’t read this book but I will. I think women do better because, due to the misconception held for so long that we had to behave in a certain way so as to be ‘ladies’, we observed situations more closely and seem to pick up unspoken intentions easily. Men tackle the genre with logic and less mystery.I haven’t made myself clear I know but I look forward to a male writer who can top Elizabeth George.

  19. All I know about Florida I learned from Carl Hiaasen books and CSI: Miami. That’s why I live in the opposite corner of the country.

  20. I’ve read all of the Hiassen Florida books — I leave the paperbacks out at my inlaws home by the beach.

    Whenever we have friends or family spend the weekend, someone invariably asks to borrow something to read.

    “Ever read Hiassen?”

    “No, never heard of him.”

    The rest is history. No one we’ve ever given a book to does anything but rave about it!

  21. I’ve been a huge fan of Hiaasen’s work for years. Though he’s not publishing new stuff lately for adults, try checking out Christopher Moore’s books, or Bad Art by Eric Gideon!

  22. So I wonder how many people will buy this book because there’s a big snake and a lady looking like they’re really enjoying eachother’s company?

    Does it have anything to do with the book, is all I’m saying.

  23. @ Robert – I read this right after it came out, but if memory serves me, the cover art does have to do with the story. I want to say that’s the tattoo the victim had.

  24. Skin Tight, Lucky You, and Skinny Dip are my favourites. The backgound story on the “Chemo” character in Skin Tight is an especially delightful and tight bit of writing. It was the first of Hiaasen’s novels I gave my ex-boyfriend many years ago, and then he went bought a copy for a friend in hospital.

  25. Basket Case is my favourite novel. I’ve read 3 other Hiaasen books (Nature Girl, Tourist Season and Double Whammy).

    I didn’t think much of Nature Girl. The characters were too formulaic, like a bad movie – all the “good guys” are rugged, tanned, kind and brave; all the others are selfish, either skinny or obese, either spineless or violent; all the girls apart from the main character are ditzy, fawning and feckless.

    On the other hand, his other books are defined by their weird, unique characters, awkward heroes, the occasional charming villian, the damsel in distress without the distress.

  26. I may revisit Hiaasen’s books–I was a fan for a while, but stopped reading them (I don’t know that I’d call them “formulaic”, but I wasn’t getting out of them what I’d previously gotten, if that makes any sense) a while ago.

  27. I had an English professor turn me on to Hiaasen many years ago with “Double Whammy”. I loved it (still my favorite), passed it on to many others but after “Skin Tight” my enthusiasm waned. I continue to enjoy his work but not with the page-turning excitement I had at the beginning. Elmore Leonard is still my favorite of this genre, but give the late Charles Williford a try.

  28. Another author to consider for that Florida feeling is Laurence Shames e.g. Scavenger Reef. The humor is more character driven and the scene is usually Key West, but his books are a lot of fun.

    Vanwall mentioned Ross Thomas. Wow, do I miss Ross Thomas. Oh well, bookfinder, here I come.

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