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Onyx reviews: Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

It's probably shouldn't be a surprise that Jack Tagger has become obsessed with death—he's been condemned to spend the last years of his unremarkable career as a journalist for a South Florida daily writing obituaries. The once thriving Union Register is now part of the Maggard-Feist Publishing Group. Tagger fell afoul of its chairman when he expressed his "brief but shockingly coarse" opinion of the CEO at a shareholders' meeting.

Tagger clings to the hope that he will stumble across an obituary newsworthy enough to get pulled into the Metro section or even the front page. The mysterious diving death of former rocker Jimmy Stoma looks like a prime candidate.

At forty-six, Tagger is exactly the same age as JFK, Elvis and Oscar Wilde were when they died. Details like this obsess him. For years he has been trying to get his mother to tell him how old his absentee father was when he died, afraid that he is destined to die at the same age. His obsession cost him his previous relationship, though he is still on friendly terms with the woman and her teenage daughter Carla, who changes her hair color daily and knows all the trendy nightspots. Carla is instrumental in bringing Tagger up to speed on Clio Rio, Jimmy Stoma's young wife, a one-hit wonder better known for her shockingly explicit MTV video than for her singing talents.

Tagger's investigation into Stoma's death leads him down a nostalgic path. Stoma's old band—which had the sort of name Dave Barry might have dreamt up and isn't suitable for a family newspaper—had several hit albums but dropped off the scene many years ago. Depending on who Tagger listens to at the time of his death Stoma was either producing Clio Rio's new album, working on his comeback album or avoiding the music industry altogether.

Because he died in the Bahamas, the cause of death wasn't clearly established. Tagger suspects murder, especially when one of Stoma's former band members is killed and another assaulted. There's something out there someone is willing to murder to get—or to hide.

A Carl Hiaasen mystery reads like a cross between Elmore Leonard and Dave Barry, with sharp dialog, colorful characters and a jaunty delivery. Hiaasen is a colleague of Barry's at the Miami Herald, but his journalism is mostly of the serious investigative sort. It is in his fiction that a cunning sense of humor emerges.

The mystery is intriguing and moves the plot along, but Tagger is the focus of Basket Case, the title of one of Stoma's songs and also could describe Tagger. Hiaasen manipulates his neurotic protagonist through the book, bringing him to life as he discovers new love, renews his enthusiasm for investigative journalism, gets a few punches in the nose and lashes back at the profit-minded conglomerate that he feels is selling his newspaper's tradition of excellence down the drain. Hiaasen's first-person, present-tense narrative effectively pulls readers into the story.

The secondary characters are equally intriguing. They include Tagger's boss, Emma, who would love nothing more than to find a way to fire him; his friend and colleague Juan, a Cuban exile who carries a dark secret from his boat journey to Miami; Janet Thrush, Stoma's sister, who operates a soft-porn webcam site; and Ms. Rio, Stoma's career-minded widow who uses his funeral as a launching platform for her new song.

Throw into the mix an adolescent computer genius, a green newspaper intern, a couple of low-IQ thugs, cameo appearances by real-life rock stars and a frozen monitor lizard in Tagger's deep freeze and you get a no-holds-barred hilarious adventure.

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