18 January 2014

Getting into Big Trouble

Some of the columns I enjoy reading the most at SleuthSayers are those that tell me about past novels and stories and movies that I somehow overlooked or never heard about at all. I still remember how pleased I was to find out from Rob Lopresti about the quirky film In Bruges; as soon as I sought it out and watched it, it became one of my favorite crime movies.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered one of these long-lost little gems on my own, in the book-sale section of our local library. It was a novel published fifteen years ago by Miami journalist and humor columnist Dave Barry, called Big Trouble. In fact I believe it was his first attempt at fiction--and it was one of those books that I knew I would like as soon as I picked it up and flipped through it. (It also cost me only fifty cents, but still …)

In hindsight, I think I recall at least noticing it when it appeared in bookstores and hearing about the movie that was later made from the novel, but I just never paid much attention to either one. Turns out that was a mistake.

Funny business

A quick note. Big Trouble is not profound, meaningful, life-changing literature, and doesn't pretend to be. It's just a joy to read. On the book jacket, Elmore Leonard blurbed that it was the funniest book he'd read in fifty years, and Stephen King said it's the funniest thing he'd read in almost forty years. I'm not sure I'd go that farsome of the early Stephanie Plum novels made me laugh like a loon on just about every page– but I do agree that Big Trouble is hilarious, and delightful from start to finish.

Two more things, as I wrote this piece, reminded me of recent SleuthSayers columns. One is that we've spent quite a bit of time at this blog lately talking about humorous mysteries--presumably because so many of us enjoy them. And believe me, this book ranks right up there with the work of Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, Tim Dorsey, etc. My hat's off to all of them. It can be difficult to make crime funny, and we writers know that humor of any kind is hard to do well and easy to do badly.

The other thing I kept thinking of was Leigh Lundin's frequent columns about the weirdness of some of the residents of Florida. At times it does appear that many of the loose nuts in the continental U.S. have indeed rolled down and lodged in the Sunshine State, and most of those seem to have kept trickling down to the Miami area. Big Trouble is set entirely in South Florida, and sometimes the only reason given by some of the characters to explain the behavior of the other characters is that they simply happen to be residents of Miami. Goofy things happen there.


I'm not overly fond of book reviews that go into great detail about the plot, so with that in mind (plus the fact that I'm basically lazy), here's my snapshot of Big Trouble: Two hitmen from New Jersey head down to Coconut Grove to "take care of" an embezzler named Arthur Herk, and in the process they encounter a tree-dwelling vagrant, a python named Daphne, two Russian arms dealers, a truckload of goats, a giant toad, a down-on-his-luck ad man, a dog named Roger, three teenagers obsessed with a squirt-gun game called Killer, a nuclear bomb, and an assortment of crooks, illegal aliens, airport security personnel, FBI agents, and charter pilots. And wind up, of course, in big trouble.

If you're so inclined, and if you like to belly-laugh, give this novel a try. I found that I really didn't want it to end, and when it did I was pleased to discover, via Google, that Mr. Barry has since written two other funny mysteries--Tricky Business and Insane City.

I'll be looking for them on the library book-sale shelves.


  1. I loved the book, and Barry's next, Tricky Business. You did not mention that the movie (which in part, was about how easy it would be to smuggle an atomic bomb on an airplane) was scheduled to be released the week of 9/11'. Needless to say it was delayed but that did not help it.

  2. John, don't forget Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels on that list.

  3. My buddy Kurt Sercu, proprietor of the website Ellery Queen -- A Website on Deduction actually lives in Bruges, Belgium. In an email, when the film In Bruges was playing, Kurt discussed all of the things the movie got wrong about the locales where it was shot. Didn't matter to me -- it's a great flick.

  4. You're right, Rob, I forgot about the bad timing, with the movie. I actually haven't seen it yet.

    Liz, I love Westlake's comic novels, and yes, I forgot to mention him.

    Dale, In Bruges has to be one of the most quirky movies I've ever seen, and completely satisfying on all kinds of levels.

  5. Of course one has to wonder how Leigh ended up in Florida!

    I haven't read his novels, but his newspaper articles have had me rolling. I can't recall the topic, but I noticed the Orange County Courthouse has photocopies of Barry's articles in their work room.

    Dave Barry was one of the presenters at a past MWA event and really roasted his friend Stephen King.

  6. Leigh, I agree--Barry's one of the funniest columnists ever.

    He was just right, for Florida--and you are too!

  7. Thanks, John! I'd seen the movie, and now I'll get the book!


  8. Dix, I'm doing it the other way around. I've ordered the movie on Netflix.

    Let me know what you think!


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