Monday, June 24, 2013

Carl Hiaasen "Bad Monkey"

Long term fans will come to Carl Hiaasen’s latest south Florida mystery knowing, more or less, what to expect, and while there’s something different in the approach (it’s as close as Hiaasen’s likely to get to a police procedural), and the plot line strays beyond the Florida state line (but only as far as the Bahamas) virtually everything else is reasonably familiar.

This time around Hiaasen’s protagonist is Andrew Yancy, who’s had issues with the Miami Police Department and now finds himself in the Sheriff's bad books in Key West after he assaulted the prominent dermatologist who's married to his future former girlfriend. He’s of the opinion that the husband had a bad case of bees up the bum, and had attempted to fix the problem, in public, with a vacuum cleaner. It was, apparently, all over YouTube in a matter of minutes.

As a result of a plea bargaining deal and a suspended sentence, he's been reassigned as a restaurant inspector, on the roach patrol and the things he finds in Key West kitchens is making him physically ill. He has, to all intents and purposes, stopped eating, and is also engaged in an ongoing struggle against a neighbour building a monumental spec house that contravenes the local planning regulations, will tower over his more modest home and cut off his view of the sunset across the Gulf of Mexico. It has already scared away the little Key Deer population.

In true Hiaasen fashion, the steps he takes against the neighbour involves scaring off potential buyers, planting dead raccoons, hives of angry bees, Santeria shrines, and, lastly, his ex-girlfriend and her new beau on the premises. He’s not above using his own misfortunes as well when he becomes entangled in another matter.

But that’s back story.

You know you’re in familiar territory as soon as you read the opening paragraphs:
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. 
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!'

The arm, as a DNA match reveals, belongs to entrepreneur Nicky Stripling, who made millions billing Medicare for nonexistent electric scooters called Super Rollies to non-existent senior citizens. Florida, the reader learns, is the Medicare-fraud capital of America, where the most experienced dirtballs came to gorge ... the slickest and slimiest —  former mortgage brokers, identity thieves, arms dealers, inside traders and dope smugglers. Stripling’s done pretty well out of it (he’d socked away eleven-plus million dollars) but, if the severed arm’s to believed, has been lost at sea and ended up as a shark’s lunch.

Yancy, on the other hand, suspects foul play. The victim’s wife, who stands to inherit a fortune, doesn’t ring true and the victim’s daughter accuses her step-mother of doing away with her husband to collect the two million dollars’ insurance money. There’s also the possibility, if there is foul play involved, that he’ll get his old job back if he can crack the case.

That’s not the way his boss, Sheriff Sonny Summers (who won office because he was the only candidate not in federal custody) sees it. As far as he’s concerned, the severed arm needs to be delivered to the Miami Medical Examiners office, given the fact that Miami is the floating-human-body-parts capital of America, and the severed limb won’t do much for tourism in Key West.

Miami, on the other hand, don’t want it either. It doesn’t match any known victim, it was found outside their jurisdiction, and the currents probably wouldn’t have carried anything originating in or near Miami to the Keys, which, basically is why Yancy ends up with a human arm alongside the Popsicles in his freezer.

Oh, and the shark teeth embedded in the flesh are from an inshore variety that doesn't frequent the area where the arm was found.

The trip to Miami, however, hasn’t been a complete waste of time since it put him into contact with pathologist Dr. Rosa Campesino, who has a penchant for hot sex on a cold mortuary slab kinky sex in locations like slabs.

Meanwhile it seems Bonnie, his former girlfriend, who still seems to have the hots for Yancy, is really Plover Chase, a Tulsa English teacher who’s on the run after being convicted of extorting sex from one of her students in exchange for giving him an A on his report card.

Hiaasen novels tend towards the ornate when it comes to unusual subplots.

Yancey’s investigation has him moving back and forth between Key West, Miami and the Bahamas, which is where he meets the eponymous Bad Monkey, a nasty little creature named Driggs who’d been the official “Rally Monkey of the Los Angeles Angels” but lost the gig after a scrotum-grooming reverie, broadcast live on the stadium Jumbotron.

Sold off to a freelance animal wrangler, he’s ended up in the Bahamas as a backup to another, more docile simian, on one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies but a repeat of the execrable antics that had cost him the Angels gig saw him sold for seventy-five Bahamian dollars to a sponge fisher who passed him on to a gullible fisherman named Neville Stafford.

Living on a diet of batter-fried chicken, conch fritters and coconut cakes, Driggs loses most of his hair and is traded to voodoo priestess the Dragon Queen when Neville needs a spell cast on the property developer who’s managed to bump him off his property, which is about to become part of a timeshare resort.

The property developer appears to be Stripling’s widow’s new boyfriend, which, of course, adds to the suspicions about her husband’s death, and that’s about as far as we can go without crossing over into spoiler territory.

Bad Monkey mightn’t be Hiaasen at his best (I had a feeling all the way through that I’d enjoyed other titles more, but nothing concrete to base that suspicion on) and might lack the outrageousness that lands on the page as soon as The Skink appears on the scene but it’s still a wickedly funny read where the good guys, despite everything outrageous fortune and the weather can throw up against them, ultimately prevail.

You knew they would, of course, and though the outcome isn’t really in doubt it’s the journey that delivers the reader there that makes a Hiaasen novel an ingenious entertainment.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Peter Robinson Friend of the Devil

Typical, really. Having watched the DCI Banks episode based on Playing With Fire I figured I’d read Friend of the Devil before watching the adaption, and found I probably needed to reread two more Robinson titles, one of which appeared at the time to be a non-Banks title.

This, of course, comes after putting the reread them all in order (I’d only covered the first title, so it wasn’t as if that had progressed too far) project on hold while I watched the adaptions. Having recently read (or having your review available to consult) Aftermath (five titles earlier in the Banks sequence) and Caedmon’s Song (the non-Banks title that goes back well before the two Banks titles) probably isn’t totally necessary, but since the two stories link into what’s going on here it’d help keep things tidy.

The link to Aftermath, #12 in the series (this is # 17) is pretty clear from very early in the piece since Karen Drew, the quadriplegic victim found on an isolated cliff near Whitby still sitting in a wheelchair with her throat slit turns out to be Lucy Payne, the partner in crime of Terrence Payne, the perpetrator of a series of sadistic crimes committed against girls lured to what was later dubbed The House of Payne. He died of injuries inflicted in the process of apprehending him, while Lucy jumped through a window and damaged her spine while trying to escape arrest.

Until the previous identity is revealed there’s nothing obvious about Karen’s past that would explain the murder because, basically, when Annie Cabbot starts digging around looking for a motive, there isn’t much of a past. The cover story has Karen Drew left in the wheelchair as the result of a car crash, and it’s the search for motives for her murder that leads Annie to the firm of lawyers who looked after her affairs and provided the cover story.

Explaining away a quadriplegic’s background would seem to be a fairly straightforward affair if the person you’re doing it for is unable to communicate or do anything to blow the cover story, but someone seems to have let the cat out of the bag. That breach of security, wherever it was, has allowed an alleged acquaintance called Mary to sign Karen/Lucy out the nursing home and do away with her, leaving the body to be found by some innocent passer by.

DI Annie Cabbot has been temporarily seconded to Eastern Area Headquarters, and seems, on the surface at least, to be in severe danger of unravelling completely.  The phone call that alerts her to the murder finds her waking in a strange bed after a one-night stand with a much younger man and she’s self-medicating like it’s going out of style almost throughout the investigation.

And the same Mothers' Day morning Chief Inspector Alan Banks, with his only scheduled commitment being the obligatory call to Mum has his leisurely morning interrupted by a phone call from Detective Inspector Kevin Templeton reporting the discovery of a scantily clad nineteen-year-old girl’s body in The Maze, a complex tangle of narrow cobbled alleyways behind the market square in Eastvale, right across the Market Square from the Eastvale police station.

Eastvale College student Hayley Daniels may have been attractive, with any number of admirers, but she’s also inclined towards outrageous behaviour, which means she’s not going to wait till her friends arrive at the next location before voiding the bladder after a group of yobs trashed the toilets at The Fountain. After giving the bartender a mouthful she departs, along with the rest of her party, announces she’s going to relieve herself in the warren of alleys. Her partly clad body is found in the storeroom of a leather goods shop when the proprietor opens it in search of offcuts the next morning and Banks finds himself looking at rape and murder on an alcohol-fuelled Saturday nigh with any number of suspects, from the crowd she’d been partying with, through older men who had ogled her at the pub (including the one who found the body) to a lecturer at the college.

The closed circuit TV footage shows Hayley entering the Maze on her own, and a scan of the earlier images fails to reveal anyone entering the area earlier, though there is another entrance where the camera coverage isn’t as good. On that basis, the obvious conclusion is that there’s someone lurking in there waiting for a victim, Jack the Ripper style, and as far as Kevin Templeton’s concerned that’s where the explanation lies.

Crass, uncouth, insensitive with a hide equivalent to a rhinoceros, and more front than your average supermarket, Templeton has managed to get everyone he works with, apart from Banks who’s still 50/50 on him, and decides to conduct a one-man stakeout in The Maze, a decision that ends up costing him his life. His death, however, brings the two cases together since he’s found with throat is slashed from behind a la Lucy/Karen.

The answer to the Lucy/Karen/Templeton side of things turns out to lie in the 1989 disappearance of a man believed to be the serial rapist and killer of half a dozen young (the main plot line of an earlier non-Banks title, Caedmon’s Song). Along with the disappearance there’s an unsolved death and a vicious attack, and all three happened in and around Whitby.

At this point, again, we’re teetering on the brink of spoiler territory, but we knew the two main investigations were going to merge, because Robinson has them unfolding in parallel, switching back and forth between the two from paragraph to paragraph rather than chapter to chapter. In a lesser writer this approach could become confusing, but Robinson has the writerly chops to make it work, and the close to seamless integration of the twin narratives provide the chance to drive the soap opera side of things on a bit further.

In the big picture Friend of the Devil is as much about the long-lasting aftereffects of physical and psychological trauma and serious crime on both victims and survivors as it is about the two cases and when the cases are finally solved it’s hard to disagree with the explanation offered by Lucy/Karen’s killer for what would seem to be a cruel and totally unnecessary killing. That’s not to suggest I’m inclined to agree, either, but it’s one of those situations where you can see where they’re coming from.

That sort of big picture dark side of human emotions and motivations can become very heavy very quickly, which is why we need the light and shade that comes with the soap opera interactions of the regular cast of characters. Banks and Annie are still feeling the fallout from their emotional entanglement, Banks is still rebuilding his life and getting over the aftermath of Playing With Fire and there are little subplots involving Jamaican Detective Constable Winsome Jackman, Detective Sergeant Kevin Templeton (the wake following his death catches the rather complex web of emotions surrounding his death rather well) and Banks' demanding boss, Superintendent Catherine Gervaise.

Bring all those strands together and the result is an absorbing read that maintains the suspense right up to the end and left me interested to see how the transition to the small screen was going to be managed.