Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the sub-genres of crime fiction that’s developed quite a lot in recent years is the comic/caper novel. It’s easy to see why, too. The absurd, the comical and the outrageous can add very welcome relief to an otherwise sad story. And comic/caper novels can be an effective kind of escape, especially if one’s mood needs to be lifted. Carl Hiaasen’s novels are among the very well-regarded novels in this sub-genre, so today, let’s relax, lighten the mood and take a close look at Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip.
The novel begins when Joey Perrone is pushed overboard during an anniversary cruise she’s taking with her husband Charles “Chaz.” Chaz gives the alarm and immediately a search for Joey is begun. As the days go by and Joey doesn’t turn up, there seems less and less hope that she’s alive. That probably sounds like a plot that you might expect in a mystery novel. But here’s the thing: Chaz himself pushed his wife overboard, thinking she would drown. The only problem for Chaz is that Joey was a champion swimmer in college, and didn’t drown. She managed to survive and has been rescued by Mick Stranahan, a former investigator for Florida’s Attorney General.
Chaz has a voracious sexual appetite, and Joey knows he’s been unfaithful, but she can’t imagine that’s the reason he tried to murder her. And although Joey is wealthy, she knows Chaz can’t touch her money even if she’s dead, so money isn’t the motive, either. Joey’s desire to know why Chaz tried to kill her and her anger at the attempt, and at Chaz in general, push her to hatch an unusual plan. She decides to play “mind games” with Chaz since he doesn’t know she’s alive. For instance, she turns their house’s sprinkler system on while Chaz isn’t home. Gradually, Chaz begins to be paranoid, especially when Mick Stranahan adds a refinement to Joey’s campaign. Stranahan pretends to be a blackmailer who saw Chaz push his wife overboard and begins to harass Chaz. Joey’s enjoying making a wreck of her husband, but she still doesn’t know at first why he tried to kill her.
The reason has to do with a “business arrangement” Chaz has with Samuel Johnson “Red” Hammernut, who owns a large and successful farm that also spews toxic waste into the Everglades. Chaz is by background (an interesting story in itself) a marine biologist whom Hammernut has hired to make sure that the mandatory water samples taken near the Hammernut property show that Hammernut’s not polluting the water. Chaz, who is in general a self-serving, lying, cheating type of a man, has no compunctions about faking the water samples to keep himself in a good income. Hammernut’s only too happy not to have to face off against environmentalists. Chaz suspected that Joey knew about his faking the samples; hence the murder attempt.
As Chaz gets more and more rattled by what Joey and Mick Stranahan are doing, his behaviour becomes more and more erratic. This causes no end of concern to Hammernut, who begins to wonder just how reliable his “business associate is.” So Chaz finds himself caught between his own paranoia and Hammernut’s attempts to keep him under control. It doesn’t help matters that Broward County, Florida detective Karl Rolvaag believes that Chaz Perrone killed his wife, and is determined to prove it. The more Chaz tries to lie and bluff his way out of his predicaments, the worse trouble there is for him and in the end, he gets more trouble than he could have imagined.
One of the really important elements in this novel is the absurdly funny moments throughout it. For example, in one scene, Chaz Perrone has enticed his sometimes girlfriend Medea to spend the night with him. Medea’s got some annoying habits, but Chaz wants to prove that he’s over the loss of his wife. What neither realises as they’re “getting things going” is that Joey snuck into the house before Medea’s arrival, couldn’t make an escape and is now trapped under the bed Chaz and Medea are using. And then there’s the scene where Rolvaag tracks down another of Chaz’ girlfriends, hairstylist Ricca Spillman. Rolvaag believes she may know something about Joey Perrone, so he drops all sorts of hints that rattle Ricca so much that she gives Rolvaag a comically terrible haircut.
There’s also quite a lot of wit in the writing:
“Chaz’s sole instrument of defense was a boron-shafted two-iron, which in his hands was far more efficient at scaring off aquatic reptiles than striking a golf ball.”
That said, though, there’s also plenty of tension in the novel as Chaz becomes more and more trapped between Rolvaag on one hand and Hammernut and his hired goon “Tool” on the other. There’s also real suspense as Chaz Perrone and Karl Rolvaag fence with each other intellectually and verbally.
Another element woven through this novel is the set of unique characters. For instance, Mick Stranahan lives alone on a small deserted island in a house he rents from a reclusive author. He’s been married six times and is somewhat philosophical about why. He’s witty in his own laconic way and we get the sense that there’s a lot more to him and his past than he lets on. Karl Rolvaag is also an interesting character. He keeps pet pythons, much to the dismay of his neighbours. He dreams of returning to his native Minnesota and in fact, is just waiting to solve the Perrone case to begin a job he’s accepted there. He’s haunted by what he thinks is Joey’s death and takes it very personally when he can’t connect her husband with the crime.
And then there are the absurd characters like Medea, a very eccentric, “New Age” reflexologist, and Tool, who likes to collect gravesite crosses. Those bizarre characters and their eccentricities add “spice” to the novel without turning the book into a parody.
The important reason that the book doesn’t become too much of a parody is that the main characters do have depths. Joey, for instance, is struggling with a negative self-image. Some jokes are made about it, but she becomes a stronger, more confident person as the novel progresses and that adds quite a lot to the novel. So does the character of Karl Rolvaag, who’s not averse to playing the “dumb cop” when it suits him, but who’s really quite intuitive and has talent for the job. Even Tool, who’s set up as a comic-relief character, has some depths. He’s struggling with the path he’s going to take in life and shows himself to be quite reflective as he makes some important decisions.
Hiaasen also deals with some serious and important topics in the novel. For instance, the Florida Everglades region, which plays a prominent role in the story, really is under serious ecological threat and Hiaasen doesn’t minimise that. There are also issues of political “back room deals,” faked research and other serious topics addressed in the novel. Hiaasen also makes some serious points about changing the course of one’s life, and about the consequences that our actions and decisions have. And yet, these serious matters don’t weigh the book down or make it preachy.
Very earthy, very witty, completely irreverent and fast-paced, Skinny Dip is an interesting criminal investigation and a look at what happens to a self-serving person who ends up having to face what he’s done. But what’s your view? Have you read Skinny Dip? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 28 March/Tuesday 29 March - One Good Turn - Kate Atkinson
Monday 4 April/Tuesday 5 April - Fer de Lance - Rex Stout
Monday 11 April/Tuesday 12 April - The Redemption of Alexander Seaton - Shona MacLean