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Onyx reviews: Big Trouble by Dave Barry

Be forewarned: Dave Barry is making this up. Previous books by the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Miami Herald have been comic takes on everything from sex to bad song lyrics to computers. In his first foray into fiction, Barry has turned out a hilariously funny Florida crime novel. Taking his cue from his less comical coworker, Carl Hiaasen, Barry has packed Big Trouble full of gangsters, mobsters and other upstanding Miami citizens.

The plot is not the main thing here, even though Barry has constructed a mostly logical and satisfying tale. The entertainment is in the characters, many of whom have probably appeared in one or more of Barry's weekly columns. His fans will recognize hormonal adolescents, remote-control-wielding macho men and Roger, the overly enthusiastic but IQ-challenged dog who is continually outwitted by a hallucinogen-producing toad that has taken over his food dish.

Barry animates his wacky assortment of characters, and orchestrates them through a complex series of events with ease. As in any good farce, there is an astonishing number of coincidences and improbable occurances. The boa constrictor scene in the departure lounge of MIA is pure Barry.

Everything revolves around Arthur Herk, who works for Penultimate Corporation, a construction company which specializes in overpriced government contracts. Penultimate's shoddy projects have often come tumbling down dramatically, either shortly after or during the official opening ceremonies, though the blame is always laid at the feet of subcontractors.. Arthur has gotten himself into big trouble with his employers by embezzling money intended to bribe a government official.

The novel starts off with a bang when two groups of assassins converge on Arthur's house at the same time. The first pair consists of Matt Arnold and his friend Andrew. Matt's intended target is Arthur's teenage step-daughter, Jenny. Armed with a Squirtmaster 9000 water rifle, Matt's mock assassination is part of an ongoing high school contest called "Killer." At the same time, however, two real hitman show up to carry out a Penultimate contract on Arthur. Both assassinations go awry, setting in motion a series of events which ultimately leads to a shady downtown bar, a front for a pair of Russian gunrunners. John/Ivan and Leo/Lenoid have in their possession a heavy metal suitcase which resembles a portable trash compactor except for the fact that it has a 45 minute countdown timer and a classified payload.

Add to the mix a pair of inept thieves, Eddie and Snake, who attempt a stick-up wearing hastily stolen extra-extra-large black pantyhose over their heads. They end up with the mysterious suitcase, a pair of hostages and a stolen police car, as they try to make their getaway to the Bahamas. Since neither of them has ever been outside of Miami before, this is a major undertaking.

As Barry warns at the front of the book, this novel is not for youngsters, even those who are familiar with his columns or previous books. This is because a number of his characters, against Barry's wishes, use "Adult Language."

While there are some superficial similarities to the antics which take place in a Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard novel, Barry has chiseled out his own niche in the "Bunch of South Florida Wackos" genre. The climax would please Hitchcock, who loved showing the audience a ticking bomb. However, the suspense is not going to keep the reader on the edge of his or her seat, but it should keep readers who enjoys Barry's down-and-dirty sense of humor rolling in the aisles.

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