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
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.