It doesn’t do Carl Hiaasen justice to call him Florida’s funniest state product, even when you consider that the recent competition he’s bested for the title includes Katherine Harris and ”Making the Band”’s O-Town. Hiaasen is something bigger: a superb national satirist whose milieu happens to be the Sunshine State and whose favored mode is the comic mystery, and a great American writer about the great American subjects of ambition, greed, vanity, and disappointment.
Skinny Dip, his 10th novel, begins on a cruise ship, as Dr. Chaz Perrone lifts his heiress wife, Joey, by the ankles and tosses her overboard. (”’I married an asshole,’ she thought, knifing headfirst into the waves.”) Chaz hopes Joey will become shark food, but he proves as inept a murderer as he is a scientist (by profession, he’s a ”biostitute,” a diploma-mill biologist who provides phony environmental data for a crooked Everglades developer).
Writers who can construct a wide-ranging plot without losing sight of the mystery at its center are rare; Hiaasen is one. The narrative offers an irresistible woman-scorned revenge fantasy, as Joey is rescued by a classic Hiaasen burnout, a six-times-married rueful loner named Mick Stranahan who helps her launch a fusillade of blackmail and psychological warfare against Chaz. The mystery — the motor that turns the pages — is why Chaz did it in the first place, given that both he and Joey knew he’d inherit nothing of her $13 million fortune.
To say that the resolution isn’t quite as satisfying as the journey is only to point out that ”Skinny Dip” is both rich with incidental rewards — wry lines, savagely etched minor characters, comic set pieces — and to acknowledge that Hiaasen is up to something more complex than a ”gotcha!” The undercurrent of many mysteries is loneliness — a detective stands outside other people’s lives to solve a crime, then returns to solitude — and nobody does lonely guys better. This novel offers four: Stranahan, an endearingly dogged cop named Rolvaag, a monstrous drug catastrophe named Tool so addicted to pain-relief medication that he steals patches off of nursing-home patients, and Chaz himself, a priapic, vain loser who is reprehensible, pathetic, and somehow, in his dim-witted desperation, touching. How each of these characters ultimately finds a partner may be the most satisfying of ”Dip”’s many delights.