Better than literature

Peter Campbell

  • Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen
    Macmillan, 325 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 333 56829 X

The frights the news brings – from child abuse to acid rain – prepare the mind for fictional scares. Carl Hiaasen’s comic thrillers deal with crimes against the planet. He puts wetland clearance and condominium building up alongside bank robbery and murder. His books do not offer hope. Right can only win in the short term. We are all guilty of existence and our sheer numbers make us enemies of the good green earth. Ben Elton dabbled in these waters in Stark, and, despite the jokes, there is no reason to believe that he or Hiaasen think humans are capable of much enlightened self-interest. So, while there are plenty of human deaths and maimings in Hiaasen’s books, bulldozed mangroves are what bring a glitter to the hard man’s eye and rage to his heart. When, in Skin Tight, a tree surgeon puts a mistake made by his brother (a plastic surgeon) through a wood-chipping machine, the minced flesh raises no more than a passing yuck, while in Native Tongue the torn limb of a red mangrove, trashed to make way for a golf course, wins a genuine tear. Hiaasen writes to a formula with brilliant success. His books are addictive. The centres of gratification they stimulate are reached via the primitives of storytelling: agile-and-clever defeating slow-strong-and-stupid; the princess choosing the miller’s son – Hiaasen’s girls tend to make the moves; pure destruction. By reliably offering such pleasures Hiaasen induces dependence. One may miss the sour bite of bleaker comedy, found in the best crime stories of a more realistic kind, but for entertainment few can match him.

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