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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Burned" by Second-Rate Carl Hiaasen

By Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Vintage (June 30, 1998)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0375700684
ISBN-13: 978-0375700682
Read between Oct. 31 and Nov. 10

In Powder Burn, a Carl Hiaasen thriller that was originally released at the height of Southern Florida's “Miami Vice” drug revolution in the 1980s, Chris Meadows is an architect who enjoys building things. 

He does, anyway, until the day he watches in horror as a former lover and her little girl are accidentally killed by a Cuban hit man chasing a car full of cocaine dealers.  At that point, Meadows decides that it’s time to do a little demo work – on the hit man’s organization and boss.

What follows, however, is nearly 300 pages of “vacation reading” in the worst sense of the term: this revenge-fueled thriller only holds together if your brain goes on vacation for entire chapters at a time.

Powder Burn is one of Hiaasen’s earlier books, apparently written before he had the confidence to unleash the outrageous sense of humor that brought us such memorable characters as Skink, the former Florida governor who now lives in the glades and subsists on roadkill, or Chemo, the scarred killer who loses a hand to a barracuda and has his stump fitted with a weed-whacker. 

There are moments of humor in Powder Burn, but they are few and far between.

Instead, what Hiaasen and his co-author give us is a rather unremarkable suspense novel that turns on a series of  unbelievable coincidences. If your basic Hiaasen is like Elmore Leonard on laughing gas, Powder Burn is more like Dutch on one of those days when he mails it in (Stay Cool, Road Dogs, Djibouti, etc.).  It is readable, but it isn’t the sort of party a Hiaasen yarn normally offers.

The characters are uniformly flat: they include such tired standbys as the apparently bent Cuban-American narc, his by-the-book white-bread partner and a battalion of muy estupido drug henchmen who seem as faded and familiar as the d├ęcor in a Motel 6. Meadows’ current squeeze Terry – an unlikely combination of bush pilot and fashion plate – serves as the sole Smurfette character.  She plays such a marginal role in the action that she doesn’t even get to be decently menaced by the bad guys.

Meadows, the hero of the piece, and his nemesis, Jose Bermudez, a billionaire banker who schemes to split the drug business with his elderly Colombian counterpart, then eventually nudge the Colombian aside, have the worst failing characters in a Hiaasen novel can have: they are boring.

We know the banker is evil, not because he does things that are particularly evil, but because Hiaasen tells us he is; we know Meadows is heroic because . . . well, because he does a lot of really stupid things but survives anyway. Only a hero could get away with being such a doofus.  

The one really original character in the entire novel is Meadows’ occasional chess partner, Arthur Krim, and in him you can see traces of the kind of interesting and amusing people that populate Hiaasen’s later – and much better -- tales.

If you are out of good Hiaasen – which I was when I picked this up – by all means give Powder Burn a look.  Sure, it has an idiot plot, but the pace is rapid enough that you don’t notice the gaping holes until you are done. In the meantime, it’s a readable enough time-waster, all things considered. 

But first-rate Hiaasen can be extraordinary, while there are lots of other hacks out there that can write just as good a thriller as Powder Burn. So why not give your hard-earned money to one of them instead of the guy who is slumming? Rewarding the slacker would be the biggest burn of all.

Personally, I rate Powder Burn only three out of a possible five nooses.

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