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
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
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
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