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Somebody's Killing Off
the Slut Puppies!
Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case

by Charlie Onion

Basket Case's plot isn't as convoluted as Carl Hiaasen's last novel, Sick Puppy, but it has its fair share of zany comic antics--along with some strong, dead-on criticism of contemporary journalism.

As Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case opens, James Bradley Stomarti, alias Jimmy Stoma of Jimmy Stoma and the Slut Puppies fame, has died in an apparent diving accident in the Bahamas. Had his death occurred years earlier, when the Slut Puppies ruled the airwaves with hits like "Mouthful of Muscle" and "Trouser Troll," there would have been time and space for an obit's word, to paraphrase the Bard. (How many people can claim, after all, that they were once arrested for urinating on Engelbert Humperdinck's stretch limo? Surely that's enough to get your death noticed.) Since he's long retired from the music scene, though, Stoma's death seems hardly to merit an extended obituary...unless you're a Slut Puppies aficionado or an outcast journalist itching for a good story. A man, that is, like Basket Case's Jack Tagger, the forty-six-year-old journalist who got himself demoted to writing obituaries for southern Florida's Union-Register after he confronted the newspaper's new cost-cutting CEO at a shareholders' meeting.

Stoma's obituary is a tough sell, though. Jack's attractive but brittle editor is too young to remember the Slut Puppies, and she wants him to write an obit on a hang gliding rabbi instead. (Yes, that right, you've seen this before: sexual tension between the scoop-seeking reporter and the tough editor. Think of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and you won't be far off the mark, but it's still strong stuff here.)


Basket Case
Carl Hiaasen
Alfred A. Knopf
324 pp.

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Jack wins the editorial tug-of-war, of course, but the obituary he writes soon proves intriguingly wrong in important ways. Despite Cleo Rio's claims that her husband had turned his back on the music world, for instance, he was actually working on a new CD. And his publicity-seeking widow (whose sole hit was the appropriately titled "Me") is telling contradictory stories about his death. But while the death and the widow's actions are certainly suspicious, her motive for murdering Stoma isn't at all clear. Even if he were working on a new CD, what threat would it pose to his widow--a threat, that is, that would be severe enough to kill for?

Basket Case's plot, told entirely in Jack's voice, isn't as convoluted as Hiaasen's last novel, Sick Puppy. Where Sick Puppy was high farce, Basket Case is a more traditional murder mystery offering the standard genre-driven elements (femme fatale, etc.) as well as some nicely broad comic highlights (this is Hiaasen, after all). Unfortunately, that means it lacks some of Sick Puppy's speed and dizzying changes of direction (traits at which Hiaasen excels). On the other hand, it doesn't lack for zany comic antics, particularly when it comes to comically absurd violence (another Hiaasen trademark). A frozen, three-foot-long monitor lizard is used quite effectively to fend off a surprised burglar, for instance, and two hoods kill an intended murder victim's tropical fish by scooping them out of their tank and shooting them while they flop on the floor. "It took like two dozen goddamn rounds, too," the victim tells Jack, "'cause they're floppin' and squirming all over the tiles, plus they're real small...."

Basket Case also has its fair share of amusing characters (among them, a would-be music producer who has named himself after a hair product and a street performer who juggles cockatoos while they recite Shakespeare, Chekhov and Tennessee Williams). And Jack himself is an appealing hero whose death obsession--a side effect of being an obit writer--makes him a more complicated figure than one might expect to find in a straightforward comic mystery like this. (In one of the novel's better touches, Jack constantly compares his own age to dead celebrities: JFK and Elvis both died at Jack's age, for example, and he takes satisfaction in knowing that he lasted longer than John Lennon and F. Scott Fitzgerald.)

But as fun as it is to read hysterical lines like "Somebody's killing off the Slut Puppies!" the real punch behind Basket Case comes with the critical commentary Hiaasen delivers on the contemporary newspaper industry. This is, after all, an insider's novel, showing us how a newspaper works and why contemporary journalism isn't allowed to be what it used to be. It's the sort of scenario that many readers like because you get to peek behind the curtain and a writer likes because it gives him an editorial forum from which to air private criticisms.

Headlines don't sell papers anymore, Hiaasen informs us; grocery coupons do. And the "Wall Street whorehoppers" (Hiaasen's phrase) who have taken over newspapers prefer it that way. Indeed, Hiaasen writes, "they dream of a day when hard news is no longer allowed to interfere with putting out profitable newspapers." Of the company ("Maggad-Feist"--that Hiaasen's cunningly subtle, eh?) that bought Jack's newspaper, Hiaasen writes


When a newspaper is purchased by a chain such as Maggad-Feist, the first order of business is to assure worried employees that their jobs are safe, and that no drastic changes are planned. The second order of business is to attack the paper's payroll with a rusty cleaver, and start shoving people out the door.

Because newspaper companies promote the myth that they're more sensitive and socially responsible than the rest of corporate America, elaborate efforts are made to avoid the appearance of a bloodbath. Mass firings are discouraged in favor of strong-armed buyout packages and accelerated attrition. At the Union-Register, for instance, our newsroom has sixteen fewer full-time employees today than it had when Race Maggad III got his manicured mitts on the paper. That's nearly a thirty percent cut in the city-desk payroll, and it was achieved mainly by not replacing reporters and editors who left to work elsewhere. Consequently, lots of important news occurs that we cannot possibly keep up with, due to a shortage of warm bodies.


It may not be all that funny in its delivery, but even readers who only casually follow the journalism trade have to admit that Hiaasen--a long-time columnist for the Miami Herald--has a valid complaint.

Admittedly, Basket Case is an old-style novel that treads ground familiar to most mystery-genre readers. But with Hiaasen's comedic skills and the sharp bite of his social commentary here, Basket Case should satisfy readers who don't mind him taking a break from the high-speed, hairpin curves he pulled off in Sick Puppy.


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