Bruce Fretts
January 16, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

Basket Case

Current Status
In Season
Carl Hiaasen

We gave it an A-

From Jimmy Buffett to ‘N Sync, Florida has long been a breeding ground for pop musicians. So it seems fitting that one of the state’s leading crime novelists, Carl Hiaasen, should dive into the record biz’s shark-infested waters with his latest mystery, Basket Case. The fun begins when Jimmy Stoma, lead singer of Jimmy and the Slut Puppies, drowns while scuba diving in the Bahamas. His death is ruled an accident, but when the band’s bassist is later found dead, a question arises: Who’s trying to snuff the Slut Puppies?

As the story unfurls, Hiaasen drops real pop names: We’re told that Jimmy was once arrested for urinating on Engelbert Humperdinck’s limo, and that his funeral attracts a ”Behind the Music”-worthy lineup, including ”chunky, gray- streaked rockers from primeval bands like Styx and Supertramp…and an auburn-haired beauty who was either a Bangle or a Go-Go.” The author also elicits chuckles with the Puppies’ Spi¨nal Tap-ish titles — albums like ”A Painful Burning Sensation,” and such tracks as ”Trouser Troll” and ”All Humped Out.” The book’s title comes from a song Stoma cowrote with ”Werewolves of London” howler Warren Zevon (its chorus: ”My baby is a basket case, a bipolar mama in leather and lace!”). The biggest yuks come at the expense of Stoma’s widow, a Courtney Love-like wailer named Cleo Rio who made a splash by flashing her pubic hair in the Oliver Stone-directed video for her hit single, ”Me,” and is now rumored to be sleeping with Russell Crowe.

Was Cleo involved in her husband’s demise? It’s up to Jack Tagger, an investigative reporter for a South Florida daily who’s recently been demoted to the obits desk, to find out. Hiaasen, himself a Miami Herald columnist, knows the newspaper game and offers withering commentary about the industry’s sorry state. Jack’s an old-school muckraker who bemoans the ”strenuously tepid and deferential” tone of modern American journalism, noting that ”people who run most newspapers no longer seek out renegades and wild spirits, but rather climbers and careerists.” Such diatribes don’t endear Jack to the paper’s polo-playing CEO, Race Maggad III, a bottom-liner who’s ”aiming for annual profits of twenty-five percent, a margin that would be the envy of most heroin pushers.”

Jack’s caustic exchange with his boss at a shareholders’ meeting lands him on the obituary beat, a job that feeds his naturally morbid tendencies. He becomes obsessed with celebrities’ ages when they died — and depressed that at 46, he’s now lived as long as John F. Kennedy: ”At my age…Kennedy [was] the leader of the free world. Me, I’m sitting in a donut shop.” Hiaasen mines this turf for dark humor (Jack consoles himself that unlike JFK, ”I’m too obscure to attract a competent sniper”) as well as the kind of fascinating death-industry detail served on HBO’s ”Six Feet Under”: ”In Florida…every corpse gets a coffin, even for cremation. It’s a law that exists for no other reason than to pad the profits of funeral-home proprietors.”

Hiaasen’s last novel, the shaggy-dog story ”Sick Puppy,” found him dangerously close to Dave Barry territory. But with its vibrant criminals and quotable dialogue, ”Basket Case” happily moves him back toward Elmore Leonard land. Its simple (some might say formulaic) plot seems ready-made for a movie — one hopes a better one than 1996’s ”Striptease,” which disastrously turned Hiaasen’s ensemble piece into a star vehicle for Demi Moore’s breasts.

Female characters have never been Hiaasen’s forte, and ”Basket Case”’s jokey tone makes it hard to take seriously the subplot about Jack’s unlikely affair with his prissy 27-year-old editor, Emma. Yet every time the author tosses off a sidesplitter like the one about the Slut Puppies’ ”notoriously moody lead guitarist, Peter P. Proust, who three years ago was fatally stabbed in a bizarre confrontation with a sidewalk Santa Claus,” you’re willing to forgive him anything.

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