Showing posts with label carl hiaasen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label carl hiaasen. Show all posts

06 February 2020

Favorite Places




I have written before about atmosphere and setting. No surprise: there are not all that many topics in writing. That mystery writers have favorite venues is one of the obvious and most enjoyable facets of the genre. Many fans have had their views of California shaped by Golden State mystery mavens from Margaret Millar to Raymond Chandler and our own Paul Marks, while Carl Hiaasen has put his stamp on South Florida, as Anne Cleeves’ has put hers on Shetland and the multitude of northern noir writers on Scandinavia and Scotland. Frenchwoman Fred Vargas, currently making Paris dangerous, also includes the Pyrenees, which take up a good deal of psychic space within the capacious mind of her Commissaire Adamsberg.

I have my favorite places, too, but thinking about the topic, I realized that I have only rarely set mystery novels in them. My first detective, Anna Peters, hung out in Washington, D.C., a consequence of her remote inspiration in the Watergate hearings. At the time of the scandal, I was convinced on that some underpaid secretary knew a whole lot she wasn’t saying. I devised such a secretary and moved her to an oil company.
Anna Peters' early environment

When Anna proved modestly popular, her speciality, white collar crime, kept her in big cities with only the occasional side trip to the sort of rural setting I really prefer. She had a visit to St. Andrews, Scotland, one of the world’s great good places, and got to Patagonia, Arizona, a favorite birding location, as well as to Trier, a shabby and historic burg whose Roman ruins caught my eye. But, basically, Anna was stuck in urban life – or well-heeled suburbs.

My second series character, Francis Bacon, the Anglo-Irish painter and bon vivant, was the urban man par excellence, and his city was London, whose light and ambiance encouraged good work. A serious asthmatic, he loathed the country and all its works. Animals made him sick and he thoroughly disliked them – despite the fact that two of his finest paintings depict a screaming baboon and a mastiff. He also did a fine African landscape, complete with elephant, but that did not reconcile him to any place without sidewalks.
Soho, Francis' favorite venue

This inexplicable distaste for the natural world and its more attractive inhabitants was, along with his tin ear for music, the hardest thing  about turning the real Bacon into my character. His rather gaudy sex life, his alcoholism, his genius were the merest bumps in the road compared to constructing a man who hated and feared dogs and found the rural landscape boring.

Perhaps in retaliation, my version of Bacon was frequently in difficulty in rural areas – no doubt confirming all his prejudices. He wound up on camel back in the wilds of Morocco, drove in terror down vertiginous French roads, and effected a rescue on horseback in Germany. His trials and tribulations culminated at a real English country house, his absolute least favorite venue, in his last (and final) outing, Mornings in London.

My own favorite landscape – the rolling woods and farmland of New York state and New England – have been reserved for stand alone, mostly contemporary, novels. Night Bus was set in a fictional town that drew from our village and the one next to it, while Voices went right back to my hometown in Dutchess County, where I am happy to say, the landscape of roughly fifty years earlier was waiting for me.
nearby rail to trail conversion

And that brings me to one of the great pleasures of favorite and familiar landscapes and, indeed, of memory, which I can best illustrate with reference to the climax of Night Bus, which required a lonely cabin in the Adirondacks. I was in such a cabin only once, when I was 18, but unbeknownst to me, the neurons, which had forgotten so much else, remembered exactly what I needed, right down to how the water supply turned on. It was one of the weirdly satisfying moments in my writing life.

It is not often that the pulp fiction writer channels Proust, but the French master of memory was absolutely right about recapturing the past. He wrote that memory, in awakening the past, frees it and the remembering mind for a moment from time. Proust mentions sounds and, that most evocative and primitive of senses, smell, as triggering memory. It is the sound and smell and sight of our favorite places that so often bring us what we need as writers, not only the momentary setting but the weight and flavor of the past.

Do you have favorite literary places as either writer or reader?
Not all favorite places wind up in print

07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds


by Janice Law

We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

20 July 2013

Hiaasen on the Cake





by John M. Floyd


I have an interesting, if not always accurate, theory. A two-part observation, actually. Country music singers seem to make good actors, and newspaper writers seem to make good novelists. Case in point: Miami Herald journalist and mystery author Carl Hiaasen.  (I won't get into examples of country singers/actors, but I still defend my theory.)

Another observation. Hiaasen has developed a pattern, with the titles of his books: most are two words each. Tourist SeasonDouble WhammySkin TightNative TongueStrip Tease, Stormy WeatherLucky YouSick PuppyBasket CaseSkinny DipNature GirlStar Island. His young-adult novels, oddly enough, feature one-word titles. HootFlushScatChomp.

I've read 'em all. I finished his latest, Bad Monkey, a few days ago. It's a delightful read, with a great setting and an intriguing plot. The location is, as usual, Florida, and this one's set in the Keys, which is even more fun. As for the plot, it's complex but believable, consisting of Medicare fraud, arson, drug trafficking, bribery, murder, and a host of other crimes, and makes for a suspenseful story.

But all that, as good as it is, is only icing on the cake. The main attraction of any Hiaasen novel, the reason most of his fans read him, is his quirky characters. No, make that outrageous characters. And yes, it doesn't hurt that they're residents of the Sunshine State--we already know from Leigh that most of the peninsula can be a loony bin. It's an extension of the old joke-theory that at one point the nation bowed up in the middle and all the loose nuts rolled to both coasts; in popular fiction, those on the east side seem to have rolled all the way down and collected in Florida.

The folks in the latest Hiaasen book remind me of those one might find in a Coen Brothers movie (Raising Arizona, maybe). Here's a sampling of the players in Bad Monkey:



Andrew Yancy -- Former police officer, demoted now to restaurant inspection duty (also known as roach patrol).

Dr. Rosa Campesino -- Miami coroner who yearns for more excitement in her life, probably because all her patients are deceased.

Bonnie Witt, a.k.a. Plover Chase -- sex-offender and fugitive from Tulsa; also Yancy's former (and sometimes current) love interest.

Evan Shook -- Hapless real-estate developer who's attempting to build a McMansion between Yancy's beach house and his cherished view of the ocean sunsets.

Nicky Strickland -- Ruthless killer and con artist, always wears an orange rain poncho. The discovery of his severed arm sets the novel's plot in motion.

Eve Strickland -- Nicky's plump, upscale, greedy, screwball wife.

Sonny Summers -- Lazy but opportunistic sheriff who busts Yancy from detective to roach inspector.

K. J. Claspers -- Freelance pilot who specializes in drug smuggling but isn't really out to get rich. He just loves to fly.

Johnny Mendez -- Retired Miami cop who made a fortune calling in tips about crimes that had already been solved.

Neville Stafford -- Island native engaged in a fight with corporate bullies who want to spoil his natural homeland (a recurring Hiaasen theme).

The Dragon Queen -- Deranged voodoo priestess who tricks Neville into selling her his "bad" monkey.

Cody Parish -- Scatterbrained, lovesick kid who fancies himself the Clyde in Bonnie Witt's criminal escapades.

Egg -- Bald, hulking henchman, real name Ecclestone. He's the Dragon Queen's boyfriend, and one of the book's worst (meaning "best") villains.

Caitlin Cox -- Nicky and Eve's daughter, and just as goofy and conniving as her parents.

John Wesley Weiderman -- Tough but sympathetic FBI agent who mistakenly figured his Key West assignment would be a vacation.

Driggs -- A demented, pipe-smoking, feces-flinging monkey who supposedly once starred with Johnny Depp in his pirate movies and has since suffered a reversal of fortune.



This is only some of the cast. How could a novel populated with characters like that not be fun?

In closing, let me say that I've always enjoyed reading humorous authors: Janet Evanovich, Christopher Buckley, Steve Martin, Charlaine Harris, Kinky Friedman, Douglas Adams, Tim Dorsey, Woody Allen--even Nelson DeMille, who writes novels with serious themes but includes something witty on almost every page. In my opinion, that kind of talent is a true gift.

Carl Hiaasen's one of the best.