Book Review: Basket Case, by Carl Hiaasen

Basket Case, by Carl Hiaasen; Grand Central Publishing; Hachette Group; 2002.

Despite Carl Hiaasen being a New York Times bestselling author, he is a new author for me. I don’t put much credence in New York Times accolades. These have become meaningless, more or less. James Patterson is a New York Times bestselling author, and I find his books are insipid. Better to measure an author’s worth is to see if they have won some sort of niche award or recognition, like a Newberry, or a Golden Dagger. I have a Two-book rule: I give an author two books to sell me on their writing. Books are too expensive these days to invest in a bad book. But, every author has a bad book, at least one. I gave Patterson three books since his books are outsold only by the Christian Bible itself. Awful, each one of them. I knew after the first the odds were stacked against James.

Carl will get another book. I feel like I got my money’s worth. His writing is clear, dialogue is sharp and mostly witty, like real people talking to each other. Carl writes his characters to act and react as real people. And, not just act and react like real people but people with a smart-assed attitudes. As I read Basket Case, I kept thinking I had read a similar author. And, I had. If you’ve read Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels. Evanovich also has a gift for dialogue, scene-building, writing action, and humor.

Carl Hiaasen is the literary love-child of Janet Evanovich and Patricia Cornwell, in a sense. Basket Case represents well-defined geography, the business world of newspaper journalism, humor and action. Hiaasen writes denser novels than Evanovich, dense in the substance of investigative reporting, and dense in character development, similar to Cornwell, but includes the humor and witty banter and sometimes crazy circumstances, a staple of Stephanie Plum’s adventures. While Hiaasen’s protagonist, Jack Tagger seems to get himself into odd, delicate, or dangerous situations, he seems to accept them with various degrees of humor.

I don’t do spoilers; you’ll just have to read the book. I am interested in the geography in these novels, the real-life places, bars, cities, streets, parks, natural areas which bring novels to life, that give substance to novels, making them seem even more plausible and real. The best author I read doing such is James Lee Burke; he is a master story-teller, showcasing the bayous, bars, and banditry of southern Louisiana.

Basket Case finds Jack Tagger, a brash investigative reporter who has been demoted to the Obituary Desk, writing the obit for one of his favorite musicians, Jimmy Stoma, lead singer for the band Slut Puppies. Jimmy died while scuba diving in the Bahamas. The problem Jack runs up against while getting statements from family members is the decedent’s wife doesn’t really seem too broken-up about Jimmy’s death, and appears to have swiftly moved on to a new boyfriend. In spite of being assigned the Obit Desk, Jack’s instincts as an investigative reporter compel him to question why Cleo, Jimmy’s widow, is able to move on in such a quick and intimate manner. Jimmy Stoma may have been helped along to an early demise.

Jimmy Stoma died while diving on an old aircraft crash site near the Berry Islands, Bahamas. His obituary gave Silver Beach, Florida, as his last place of residence. (7) Fortunately, for the purpose of my posts and my desire to explore the real geography in literature, both of these places truly exist.

Jack Tagger relates some anecdotes about his experience at the Obit Desk. For example, his editor, Emma, had botched an obit in an early writing assignment, a precursor to her being promoted to editor and Jack finding himself writing the obit columns. That she is an editor sort of exemplifies the Peter Principle; she cannot write well or tell a story, yet gets advanced to editor so she doesn’t need to write. She needs only to spell-check and give her seal of approval to incoming articles before printing. Her botched obit concerned a man killed when he crashed his car into a palm tree on Perdido Boulevard. Jack is thinking about Emma’s sloppy obit as he cruises across the Pelican Causeway. From what I could determine, neither of these places exist. Hiaasen appears to have re-imagined South Florida geography, perhaps renaming causeways, towns, and suburbs to avoid any legal hassles.

Lee Child does this as well in his Jack Reacher series. The geography in the Reacher novels is just as fictional as the action. Why authors do this I have no explanation for. I recently read A Walk Among the Tombstones by Lawrence Block. Block depicts real places; real streets, real towns and cities, real cross-streets and addresses of public places, like the New York City Library. James Lee Burke also uses considerable true geography in his Dave Robicheaux series. An avid fan of Burke can drive the same routes and visit the same towns, and eat beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, just like Dave and his best friend, Cletus Purcell. Judging by the lack of success I’m having in tracking down real places in Basket Case, I’m not sure avid readers of Jack Tagger will be able to follow his literary footsteps in the real world in any detailed way.

Readers will be able to visit Nassua, the Bahamas, of course. Jack and Jimmy Stoma’s sister fly to Nassau to visit police headquarters. In the process of confirming Jimmy’s identity at the morgue, Janet Thrush, Jimmy’s surviving sister notices an odd detail about her brother. What they don’t see precipitates a flight to check the original police report and to have a chat with the fellow who performed the original autopsy. In checking the geography of their flight, about the only thing I can confirm geographically is that the Bahamas exist, Nassau exists, and that Nassau does have, in fact, a police headquarters.

The Nassau police headquarters is pretty much where the novelist describes. “Police headquarters is downtown, across the big toll bridge.” I have to take Carl at his word the bridge is a toll bridge; I cannot discern this detail from imagery but according to a few websites the toll is about $1.00. Permanent resident can use a window decal, or a Smart card to expedite their passage. At one time, pedestrians and bicycles were charged a fee to cross the causeway. The fees for vehicles was increased a few decades ago and the toll for people and their bikes was eliminated.

Several communities are referenced in Basket Case. The town of Beckerville is mentioned numerous times. Beckerville had the misfortune of having a corrupt mayor for about 14 years. I couldn’t find an actual place in Florida named “Beckerville;” doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist, simply I could not find it. The Perdido Causeway I could not find, either.

“Perdido” does seem to be a popular toponym near Pensacola, Florida. 

The county of Gadsden is mentioned early in the novel. Gadsden County, Florida is located in the panhandle of Florida, and is home of Tallahassee. Perdido is a common geographical name in the area. Silver Beach, the location given as Jimmy Stoma’s place of residence, is located due west of Tallahassee, near Destin, Florida. I found myself unable to rectify the confusing geographies presented in Basket Case, as Stoma seemed to be a pleasant inhabitant of South Florida, enjoying Florida Keys, and the Bahamas. Also, Carl Hiaasen is touted as a novelist featuring South Florida prominently in his books. I believe this to be the case. I think he has deliberately conflated real places in Florida with other real places in Florida, with liberal use of local geographic toponyms to fill in the gaps.

I did find a “Silver Beach” but the toponym was tied to a condomium tower near Destin, not South Florida.

Sometimes, an author will pull from the pages of real events, and I expect Carl, being a newspaper journalist, has done this extensively in his novels. I thought maybe I could piece together the puzzle of the book’s broken geography by investigating some of the anecdotal details Jack Tagger provides. Tagger provides some details about a corrupt Beckerville mayor who passed away from cancer. Former major Cheatworth was forced from office by a sex-and-corruption scandal. He was in league with a Miami massage parlor owner, Victor Rubella (what a name, “Rubella”), in a vote-for-happy-ending scandal to encourage zoning board members to vote in his favor. I did some googling to see if I could come up with a similar scandal in South Florida and came up empty. Again, there might have been a real case; I simply didn’t run across one. Carl probably has access to archival data I can’t access without paying for a newspaper subscription.

I’m always curious why authors go to the extra effort of masking true geographies. Several authors I’ve read, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly, F. Paul Wilson, Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cornwell use true geographies in their novels. I have not provided any exhibits from Wilson or Evanovich (at least I don’t remember having done so in any previous post), but both of their primary characters focus primarily within the city of New York and Newark, New Jersey (Wilson) and Trenton, New Jersey (Evanovich). I’m not sure what is gained, or protected, by creating pseudonyms for real places, but I’m pretty sure I know what is lost. What is lost is the connection the reader makes the novel, in general. Sure, a good story can hold a reader spellbound, especially when the novel is a tale of the supernatural, but what if in process of weaving the spell, the author adds elements of true geography to strengthen that bond?

As I investigated the geography of Carl’s novel, I found myself enjoying the book less. However, I’m not sure using geography as the sole criteria to enjoy a book is totally appropriate, though having true geography does enhance my appreciation of an author’s effort. Like I stated previously, I’m going to give Carl at least one more book, probably more. The characters are interesting and captivating, the plot interesting, the dialogue well-draw, thoughtfully constructed and humorous. Carl’s writing is recommended for adults; he deals with body parts and sexual situations and the nuances of adult relationships. So, no kids allowed.

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