A Fleabit Peanut Monkey

Bad Monkey
Carl Hiaasen

I used to be a serious person. Or at least I thought of myself that way. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

Some clarification may be in order. I was never a grind, at least the way I understand that term. Grinds, if I’ve got it right, care about things like grades, and credentials and they seem to crave approval, preferably in visible maybe even tangible form.

I mostly stopped caring about such things around fifth grade, when I embarked on the self-education spree that continues to this day. That may help explain why I am dismayed to find myself in a rut where seemingly the only things I manage to accomplish outside the workplace are deeply unserious.

A colleague has told me I should lighten up, noting that life’s too short to engage in unenjoyable activities let alone reading unenjoyable books. My hairshirt, though, remains close at hand. And so I find myself concocting increasingly febrile explanations for why I’m behaving more and more like everybody else.

Take the present volume, for example. I’ve written about Carl Hiaasen‘s work before. I’ve enjoyed a lot of it. It’s not meant to help me do anything more than escape and it works just fine for that. Yet I insist on telling myself I read this book primarily to gather another data point in my ongoing experiments with on-screen reading. It’s pitiable.

Things I failed to mention 1: boating accidents. They come in many forms.

Maybe that’s an appropriate state to find myself in since I think Hiaasen might apply that word to both his home state and his main characters. As a reminder, Carl Hiaasen is a long-time, though recently retired, columnist for the Miami Herald and native Floridian. His writing suggests he has a strong moral sense which is easily enraged by grifters and scammers whether they’re native sons and daughters or recent transplants.

That moral core is typically shared by his heroic main character, as it is in this case. Andrew Yancy is a former Miami police officer currently residing on Big Pine Key. Yancy is now conducting restaurant inspections in the Lower Keys, having lost his slot in the Monroe County‘s sheriff department because of a rather spectacular display of what my college roommate used to refer to as “righteous indignation.”

Like all Hiaasen heroes, the adjective that best describes Yancy is quixotic. He’s motivated to do what he sees as the right thing no matter the personal expense. Like all knights on a quest, he has his own Dulcinea, though he changes horses midstream. In fact, when we meet first him Bonnie Witt is leaving him.

Ms. Witt is the wife of a well-off doctor whom Yancy has subjected to a public proctology exam, but that’s not why she’s leaving. She’s following the money and her addicted-to-erotic autoasphyxiation husband. She may also, it turns out, be one step ahead of the law. Bonnie, it seems, is really Plover Chase, a former Tulsa high school teacher notorious for seducing a student who maintained a graphic diary of their dalliance. She fled the jurisdiction without ever serving a day of her sentence and Oklahoma wants her back.

Things I didn’t mention 2: fly fishing. The saltwater version might surprise you.

Reduced to a single paragraph it all sounds ridiculous. And remember, this is mostly back and side story; it complicates the main plot but isn’t terribly integral to it. It is, though, a wonderful illustration of one of Hiassen’s recurring themes. Somehow, a nation’s most questionable population manages to find its way to Florida, drawn to the epicenter of fraud and fakery like flies to sherbet.

What Yancy desperately wants is to regain his old job. He’s a through and through cop. The roach patrol is insulting, beneath him even if it pays the bills. His hunger is enough that the sheriff, Sonny Summers, can prevail upon him to take on the occasional shady task, secure in the knowledge that Yancy will do almost anything to ingratiate his way back into a job that’s always just one more favor away from materializing.

Sonny has a simple request: transport a human arm to Miami. The offensive limb has turned up too close to the beaches. Understandably, the appearance of random human limbs might suppress the allure of a tourist destination and no elected official will ever stand for that. Persuade Miami that the arm is really theirs and the problem is solved.

Things I failed to mention 3: float planes. They matter.

Anyone who’s watched more than one 1970s TV crime show knows that’s not going to happen. But it kicks things into high gear. The pathologist on duty, Dr. Rosa Campesino, suspects something, as does Yancy and suddenly it’s Hart to Hart meets Quincy, M.E., with a Bahamian twist. The ill-tempered simian of the title, Driggs, lives on Andros Island, where he rotates through a series of improbable caretakers. Driggs himself is a transplant from California, dragged east by Disney another of Hiaaasen’s favorite villains, for the filming of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Andros is where Yancy’s investigation ends up taking him and the wrap-up stretches more than a bit past the credible. But credibility is not really what this or any HIassen tale is about. What’s in play is the moral rot hidden beneath the technicolor scenery, charismatic mega-fauna and all-too-human shenanigans. The accumulation of improbable-seeming but perhaps-drawn-from-the-new columns details is what makes these well-plotted books worth the time.

To really render judgment you’ll have to read it for yourself. Or you can take my word for it but I’m sticking to my practice of not coughing up the plots of crime stories.

A final thought: despite all the verbiage above, I can’t help thinking this entire post is an elaborate justification for my continuing bouts of unseriousness.

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