Book review: Hiaasen's Bad Monkey another sun-drenched thriller

Carl Hiaasen returns with Bad Monkey, the former Miami Herald reporter's 13th darkly comic crime novel set in Florida.

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Bad Monkey
Carl Hiaasen

Fans of the crime writer Carl Hiaasen know you don't so much read one of his novels as climb into it and enjoy the ride.

The former Miami Herald reporter has an extensive canon, but his core are 12 roller-coaster romps set in the sunshine state of Florida, each populated by an original menagerie of grotesques; crooks; losers; damsels seldom-in-distress, and at least one tarnished hero on a mission to right wrongs.

He has just written a 13th - Bad Monkey - which actually strays beyond the state line, but only as far as the nearby Bahamas. Everything else is comfortably familiar - which is to say, not very comfortable at all, right from the first paragraph: "On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead-calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm. His wife flew to the bow of the boat and tossed her breakfast burritos."

Having set the scene, Hiaasen sets the moral tone: "After calming herself, Louisa Mayberry remarked that the limb didn't look real. 'Oh it's real,' said James Mayberry, 'Just take a whiff'. Snagging a fake arm wouldn't make for a good story. A real arm was major high-fives from all his peeps back in Madison. 'You caught a what? No way bro!'"

And off we go. Revealing any further twist to this rollicking plot would ruin the page-turning glee. Suffice to say that there is a scam involving defrauding the US government's healthcare plan; a subplot involving hygiene-free fast-food joints that frequently serve up un-advertised roach parts in their chowder; and an environment-wrecking resort development.

The cast that drives this tale includes a career conman prepared to self-mutilate on a grandiose scale to maximise the credibility of his latest scam; a drug-and-booze addled orthopaedic surgeon who can no longer spell "hypocratic oath"; and of course the monkey of the title, whose claim to fame is to have played alongside Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.

But he's been living on a diet of deep-fried conch and rum, most of his hair has fallen out and there's a voodoo priestess who's been teaching him to smoke. The Hollywood days are over, and he's mad.

Each character is introduced with a highly honed ruthlessness that tells you that you are unlikely to meet many heroes here.

"The new sheriff of Monroe County was a local bubba named Sonny Summers who won office because he was the only candidate not in federal custody," according to one scene-setter.

For those of you who have never read Carl Hiaasen, the formats are all startlingly familiar. The ravaging of the once-beautiful state of Florida is the main metaphor for the moral descent of those who live and visit there. As the American right-wing wit PJ O'Rourke once wrote, "Reading Carl Hiaasen will do more to damage the Florida tourist trade than anything except a visit to Florida."

But there is always one character, frequently with a less than wholesome past, who isn't going to take it any more, and that's when the roller coaster starts to roll. Bad Monkey is no different from the rest, and for that, Hiaasen fans everywhere will be grateful.

* David Black