Basket Case: Gazing into the Florida Glare with Carl Hiaasen

Weekly Lizard

In Carl Hiaasen’s Basket Case, a South Florida reporter tries to piece together the suspicious death of a sleazy rock star, simultaneously braving dangerous thugs and uptight editors. The story features corruption, murder, and even a frozen lizard corpse—and it could only happen in a place like Florida.

As the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik writes, the state has inspired a new genre of crime fiction over the last few decades. “Florida glare,” in contrast to its cultural antecedent L.A. noir, doesn’t immerse readers in a shadowy, serious world where corruption lurks beneath the cinematic veneer. Instead, Florida glare exposes human depravity to broad daylight, with drug runners, petty criminals, and crooked cops running afoul of each other’s violent, comically half-baked schemes. John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard are two of the genre’s late greats; Carl Hiaasen is perhaps its greatest living practitioner.

Hiaasen, a born-and-bred Floridian himself, is also a journalist, and many of his protagonists are newspaperman. In Basket Case, Jack Tagger is a harried obituary writer trying to make it back to page one, and when he comes across the death of a washed-up rock star, he spots an opportunity for redemption. That Hiaasen weaves a biting commentary of the declining newspaper industry into a taut crime novel is testament not only to his immense skills as a writer but to the ethos of Florida glare: in a state that’s so plagued by crime and corruption, it’s not unreasonable to expect even the most objective professions to be a little crooked.

The characters of Basket Case inhabit an hyperbolized Florida where the chief products (other than heat and humidity) are greed, idiocy, and mayhem. To wit:

“In Florida, every corpse gets embalmed and 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.”

And:

“Florida’s legislature recently passed a law allowing motorcyclists to ride without helmets, a boon for neurosurgeons and morticians.”

And:

“It would be moronic, true, but the prisons of Florida aren’t overflowing with Mensa candidates.”

In Basket Case, as in all of Hiaasen’s novels, there’s a rueful appreciation for a state where the lines dictating morality are blurred by the boiling temperatures. As Hiaasen writes, “It’s the best job in the business, chasing crooks in Florida, because the well never runs dry.”