Skinny Dip

This is a novel of suspense, humor, and satire, not necessarily in that order. For me though, the humor is the most memorable of these three ingredients. Hiaasen is just damn funny and I found myself cracking out a laugh even when I was away from the book. Something would cause me to think about the book and I would just start laughing.

For example, you kind of have to be there, but the main character, Mick Stranahan, has occasion to make phony blackmail calls to one of the villains. Now when Mick makes these calls, he imitates the voice of either Charlton Heston or Jerry Lewis. This, for some reason, has caused me to break into a fit of laughing no less than three times in the last 48 hours. Hiaasen plays these things up, then refers to them occasionally throughout the book. It is pure, comic genius as far as I am concerned…but I do have a warped sense of humor, so take it with a grain of salt.

The satire in this book is priceless also. Here are few things that Hiaasen makes fun of in a sinister, condescending, and satisfying way:

  • Cruise ships
  • Viagra
  • Condo associations
  • Real estate developments

Another theme in this book, that Hiaasen really hammers on, is the destruction of Florida’s Everglades. I am very attentive when listening to environmental issues, so it made the book even more interesting. It may bother some serious polluters though, so if you are one of those, you may want to stay away.

If you want though, you can just read this as a suspense/crime novel. It’s about a woman from Boca Raton who gets tossed overboard from a cruise ship by her scumbag husband. She gets saved by a bale of pot floating in the ocean and eventually winds up on a private island inhabited only by the aforementioned ex-cop, and hermit, Mick. They hatch a plan to get revenge on the scumbag husband and the fun begins.

It all takes place in South Florida also. I love South Florida. I refer to South Florida as the “Southwest Michigan” of Florida; it’s that great.

This is only my second Hiaasen book, and I plan on reading all of them before I die. I think I’m also going to find his column at the Miami Herald online and start reading it.


Skeleton Man

If you would have told me 20 years ago that my most enjoyable and anticipated reading experiences would be crime novels about two Navajo tribal policemen that take place in the area where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona meet, I would have called you crazy. I would have grabbed my Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel and laughed in your face.

But here I sit, having just finished another fine story about Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and I can safely say that in my estimation, there is no other fiction writer that fires on all cylinders as consistently as Hillerman. Here are a few of the great things about Tony Hillerman’s writing.

  • The relationship between Leaphorn (sage, retired cop) and Chee (young cop that occasionally bucks the system) is pitch perfect. Nothing is overdone and it’s very believable.
  • You are transported into a fascinating world of unfamiliar Native American customs in the arid landscape of the four corners region of the western US. Each book invariably brings outsiders into this world and the ensuing clash of cultures is an added twist on how the mystery shakes out.
  • Chee’s ongoing struggles with finding the perfect woman provide some great character depth but are never too obtrusive in the mystery at hand.

This current adventure has all of the above ingredients. Chee is months out from marrying former police officer Bernie Manuelito and in the middle of investigating a robbery and murder where the accused is a young nephew of Chee’s good friend, Officer Dashee. Chee and Dashee set off to slot-canyon country to dig up some evidence and Manuelito convinces them to bring her along. What was expected to be a routine evidence-gathering turns out to be perilous, and all sorts of intrigue erupts.

You can’t go wrong.


Unplayable Lie

This tidy little mystery was a lot of good fun. It’s a police procedural that takes place in Scotland, where a murder was committed. Yikes, a mmmuuurrrrddddeerrrr. That’s scary. Alright, enough with the funnin’ around.

This has been sitting in my stack of stuff to read for a year or two maybe. It’s a mystery, which is a genre that I like, and it has a link to golf, which I like. So I was gonna get to it eventually. I kept thinking that I asked for it for Christmas or something. Then my wife sees me reading it and says, “Hey, how do you like that book? That’s the one I picked up at Jackson Park Golf Course for free.”

What? I take great care in picking out every book that I read, and my wife is telling me that she grabbed it for free from some writer with a card table and a Sharpie at a Chicago municipal course where you can play all you want for like $15. I think that is the case. Well, it turned out alright, even though it was not even signed. Maybe he just left a stack to give away or something, I don’t know.

Though short on golf-oriented sections, it was pretty long on golf insight. At one point, Inspector St. George and his cohort, Laurence Poole, have to go to historic St. Andrews to do some detective work. The inspector is a golf lover, and during some downtime he is describing his penchant for blowing big bucks at golf shops:

“Make no mistake, Laurence, I’ve spent many happy hours immersing myself therein [golf shops]. And if those various proprietors included my patronage in their annual budgets, then I must confess they did so with good reason.””Ah! In other words, you’re hooked.”

“Yes, I suppose you could say so. But that makes it sound rather pathologic. After all, it’s not like I’m a gambler.”

Always sensitive to his mentor’s sensibilities and moods, Poole hastened to add, “Of course not. Just sounds better than ‘compulsive’ or ‘addicted’.”

“Let’s just say ‘focused’ and leave it at that.”

“All right. Pathologically focused.”

Keen insight into a common malady with golf junkies like myself. You know when you start denying it, or comparing it to vices like gambling, drugs, or internet porn, that you really do have a problem.

I may grab the other Inspector St. George mystery at some point, who knows.


L is for Lawless

Recently my print selections have been pretty heavy and each took awhile to get through. The last book I read was some complicated sci-fi that I never understood; before that it was a depressing work of fiction by Philip Roth. Maybe that’s why I have been reading so little lately…coupled with the fact that my reading trails off a lot during the summer because I just spend a lot of time outside.

That brings us to Sue Grafton and the twelfth Kinsey Millhone mystery (I’ve read the first eleven in order). As I’ve stated, I’m a big fan of the mystery/thriller genre and Sue Grafton does not disappoint. If I am up for some mindless fiction, I just grab one. In fact, I bought seven of them (in paperback) on eBay about a year ago and I still have two or three left. Just a lotta good fun.

The main character is this surly, 30 something female private detective that lives in the fictional town of Santa Theresa, CA. The town, I think, is really Santa Barbara and Kinsey Millhone is Grafton’s fantasy life had she not gotten married and had kids. There’s all sorts of picking locks, eating fast food, catching bad guys, and other sorts of hooey. Did I just use the word hooey? What the $%*^ is going on?

Rack it up as another good one. You can’t go wrong with Grafton.



This is pure, unadulterated, escapist fiction. The plot is implausible with huge gaps. The women are all beautiful and the bad guys are all huge and ugly. The main character is virtually indestructible, smarter than all of his foes, and quick with the quip. But I do not apologize…because I’m traveling.

That’s right, I’m spending a long weekend out of town. When I travel, I bring along trash fiction in paperback form because it’s easy to carry. When I’m done, I just leave it wherever. In fact, I keep a backlog of paperbacks for travel and just grab one or two on the way out the door. I definitely don’t want to haul around a hardcover and I don’t like reading anything too intense on a trip. If it’s a business trip, I usually work longer hours and I’m not going back to the hotel and reading something that takes concentration. If it’s pleasure, heck, the beach and trash fiction were made for each other.

This is Child’s seventh book and I’ve read them all, in order. The main character in each book is a guy named Jack Reacher. Reacher was an MP in the army for 10-15 years before he got laid-off in the armed forces reduction-in-force that took place in the 1990’s. He doesn’t have any family left and, since he grew up as a military kid, he doesn’t even have a hometown. He took his severance package and his life savings and socked them away in a bank account and now he just sort of knocks around the mainland. He carries no credit cards, has no car, and has no permanent mailing address. If he needs money, he has his bank wire some cash to Western Union or something. Hey, I told you it was implausible.

Let me make this proclamation though: Jack Reacher is the toughest dude in the history of fiction. I’m talking books, film, or TV, excluding sci-fi and fantasy of course. Let me show you my latest ranking of the toughest dudes not endowed with any sort of super powers:

  1. Jack Reacher
  2. Walker, Texas Ranger
  3. Jason Bourne
  4. John Rambo
  5. Dirk Pitt

If you want to debate it, just throw some other candidates at me and I will shoot them down. Once I start regaling you with Jack Reacher stories you will understand.

In this edition, Reacher gets yanked into helping a DEA agent who is trying to bust some bad guys. The DEA agent is a woman, and of course, she’s beautiful. She finds Reacher because he had an old army contact run the plate of a car that Reacher saw a former nemesis enter. This plate popped up on some DEA watch list or something because it’s owned by a bad man. So, coincidentally, the DEA contacts Reacher to help them bust this very same guy. Reacher cannot resist. He, of course, puts himself into dangerous situations despite pleas from his colleagues to get out. Along the way he kills a bunch of dudes and makes the women swoon.

Not much else I can say. I had a good time while I was reading it.



I saw the movie Short Cuts about a decade ago. It was the first time I recall seeing a movie in that style…the ensemble cast, the handful of stories that were either implicitly or explicitly connected, the mixture of humor and sadness, sorrow and joy. Because of Short Cuts, I rented Grand Canyon, which is much lighter, but similar. Crash and Me and You and Everyone We Know are more recent examples, both of which I enjoyed. I’ve always liked these movies but I have not read any books comparable to this style. Well, now I have.

It began last summer when my wife walked up to me in Borders, handed me Train, and said, “Do you think you would like this?” The first thing I do when I get an unfamiliar book is flip to the About the Author section. I do this because I have no literary background and I need some validation that the author is accomplished and respected. Many people would have recognized Pete Dexter, but I didn’t. I never start with the synopsis on the back cover because that’s all marketing hype. I’m sure the About the Author section also has plenty of marketing hype, but you can’t fake things like National Book Awards or New York Times Notable Books. Can you? Maybe, but besides getting recommendations from people you trust, I don’t know of a better way to help me assess a book for consumption. Do I sound like a literature snob? I hope not. But when something totally unfamiliar hits the screen, I start by qualifying the author, so to speak.

Train was written by Pete Dexter. He also wrote Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award. Paris Trout was made into a TV movie and I remember it being advertised a lot on HBO or Showtime. I also think it received some critical acclaim. Of course, these things drew me in. Couple those items with a plot that included golf, and I basically had no choice but to buy it.

The book is set in Los Angeles – year 1953. Amongst the ensemble, there are three primary characters. There’s Train, a black caddy with a special gift for golf. He has a big heart, but makes some questionable decisions. There’s Miller Packard, an enigma. He’s a cop, a part-time criminal, and a golf course hustler – at least, that’s the best I can tell. He’s nurturing and violent at the same time. And finally, there’s Norah Still. She’s a former human rights activist who finds her way to Southern California and gets embroiled with this lot.

I was immersed and interested throughout, but I can’t really say it was fun. The situations that the characters get themselves into are downright strange. I’m talking weird, gut-wrenching, horrible, humorous…you name it. It’s a dark, depressing story. There is a lot of violence and a lot of sex. And you don’t get a lot of clarity. The sensation of reading this book is totally different from reading something with a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot line, and the words THE END on the last page.

Dexter doesn’t ever let you feel like you have a grasp on what’s going on. He just throws these characters at you and starts telling a bunch of short stories. Problems don’t get resolved, apparent criminal actions don’t get investigated, and certain story lines don’t get concluded. Something big and important may happen, but you may not find out about it until afterwards, in the recollection of one of the characters. You sense connections, you get to know the characters, you get hints on what’s next, you look forward to simply getting some clarity. Sometimes things get clarified and sometimes they don’t. I was never bored because the anticipation of some sort of conclusion keeps you turning pages.

Like I said, this book is dark, but there is some hope. At times, amidst all the pain and suffering, the characters show themselves to be kind, giving, and understanding. I personally found a lot of hope in the golf aspect, but please don’t look at this as a golf book. Golf is always there, but rarely the center of attention. You can tell that Dexter has played some golf because he has a few keen insights into the game, which were entertaining for a fan of the game like me.

I will, at some time in my life, read more Pete Dexter. I’m not going to run out tomorrow and blow my Borders gift certificate on Paris Trout. However, it’s good to know that there is a National Book Award winner out there that I will probably be interested in reading.


A Conspiracy of Paper

I’ve had David Liss on my reading list for a long time. I’m not sure how I heard about him. I think maybe there was a write-up in the Chicago Tribune book section, or maybe even Newsweek. Who knows, but I finally pulled the trigger. This came with a lot of deliberation, but it was a New York Times Notable Book so I wasn’t taking that big of a risk.

I’ve always been a big fan of the mystery/thriller genre but I am pretty selective and fiercely loyal to authors like Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, and Sue Grafton. I need to be comfortable that I’m not wasting my time and once I settle on a “brand,” so to speak, I don’t really deviate. I own just about every Hillerman in hardcover and I have never been disappointed with any of his books. With Hillerman, I know I’m going to get deep and interesting characters, a keen insight into a different culture or time period, and an intricate, challenging, yet understandable plotline. I think the same goes for Francis and Grafton. Let me say right now, David Liss did not disappoint.

The main character is Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish thief-taker (private detective basically) in London – year 1719. Weaver is a former champion boxer who now lives comfortably in London chasing down criminals in a discrete and professional manner. He has led a rough life and spent most of it estranged from his family and his overbearing, cruel father.

The story begins shortly after his father is killed in the streets of London by an out of control carriage driver. It is deemed an accident by the relevant authorities and Weaver shows little remorse given his rocky relationship with his father. However, certain instances give rise to doubts about the nature of his father’s death and Weaver’s interest gets piqued enough such that he begins to investigate.

I’m not giving anything away, this all happens within the first 20 pages.

His investigation sets off a series of events in London that brings Weaver in contact with corrupt corporations, seedy street criminals, a prolific mob boss, the beautiful widow of his dead cousin, and an enemy from Weaver’s childhood that may be an ally. The most colorful character of the bunch is his buddy, Elias, who happens to be a doctor, aspiring playwright, drunken playboy, and part-time philosopher. The novel is set in a very anti-Semitic, early 18th century London, a city that during this time was leading the world in the conversion from gold to paper as a medium of finance. Most of the action takes place in and around the exchanges and the London financial markets.

Liss was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and wrote his thesis on “the ways in which eighteenth century Britons imagined themselves through their money” (Historical Note, page 438). So as you can imagine, he mixes in some real characters with his fictional characters and attempts to capture the cultural and political atmosphere of the time. This historical backing does not impinge at all on the intrigue and violence of the story. It is a great mystery with plot twists throughout.

Finally, not only is it a great mystery, but it also has a great main character in Benjamin Weaver. It is told from his perspective. He is a tough yet reflective gentleman. He wrestles with the demons of his childhood, the British class structure, anti-Semitism, and his own insecurity. He questions the moral implications of his actions and second-guesses his methods of investigation. He is not infallible but certainly resolute once he sets his mind to something. This was a great read and I look forward to reading the other two books, which continue the adventures of Weaver.