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.