''People get lost here all the time,'' says Carl Hiaasen, calmly steering his 17-foot skiff through the shark- and gator-infested backwaters of Florida's Everglades National Park. ''It's real easy to run aground in these parts. Takes years to learn your way. Even some of the old-timers have trouble.''
Happily hopefully Hiaasen knows these parts better than almost anyone. The 42-year-old Miami Herald columnist-turned-best-selling author has been writing darkly comic crime novels set in the Sunshine State for nearly a decade including 1993's cheekily satiric Strip Tease, soon to be a majorly hyped motion picture (starring Demi Moore, who became Hollywood's first $12.5 million woman when she signed for the lead). Just arriving in stores is his sixth book, Stormy Weather, in which Hiaasen serves up his usual medley of boobish tourists, corrupt public servants, and wily scamsters but adds a new twist to the plot: Hurricane Andrew.
''I've always wanted to do a hurricane book,'' he says. ''But to me the best part of the Andrew story wasn't the actual storm it was the aftermath. Each day brought a flurry of bizarre news stories. We actually had tourists running around with video cameras. People's lives were wrecked and these idiots were videotaping the damage. It was the most macabre thing I'd ever seen.''
In Weather, one of those Handycam-waving tourists ends up getting kidnapped and dragged into the Everglades by a homeless ex-governor who may or may not be crazy. There's also an ambitious young woman who plots to sleep with a Palm Beach Kennedy (and then sue him), a rock-stupid ex-con whose deformed jaw earns him the nickname Snapper, a crooked building contractor who sacrifices goats in his garage, and a hodgepodge of other sleazebags and nogoodniks who swarm through Florida trying to cash in on Andrew's destruction. Like all Hiaasen's novels, it's part hard-boiled detective fiction, part pitch-black comedy the sort of book you might get if Elmore Leonard and Martin Amis vacationed together in Miami Beach for a month.
''These novels have always been a form of therapy for me,'' Hiaasen explains, idling his boat in the shallow waters off Florida Bay. ''I write them to vent. After 20 years in journalism, of being ruled by the notebook, I can finally make the stories go the way that I want.''
Born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, he landed his first writing gig in 1974, at a small paper called Florida Today. He became an investigative reporter at the Herald in 1976, where he still files a cranky twice-a-week what's-my-beef column from his home in the Keys (he recently separated from his wife of 24 years, Connie; they have a 24-year-old son, Scott). His first novel, 1986's Tourist Season, was well received, but it had only modest sales. Gradually he found a wider audience, finally hitting critical mass with Strip Tease. ''You know what most people want to know from me these days?'' he asks. ''They want to know if Demi Moore is going to be completely naked in the movie. They want to know if she's taking her bottom off.'' He revs up the boat engine and charts a course back home. ''I'm under no illusions about this film. It's not plot points people want to see.''