THE PLEASURES OF REVISITING AN OLD FRIEND: SKINNY DIP

One of the great pleasures in a reader’s life is rediscovering an old favorite, especially if it’s a book you haven’t read in a number of years.  If it’s been long enough, you can even reread a mystery and not remember all the plot details so you can encounter them anew (there are some mysteries that I am sure I would never remember all the plot details even if I just read them yesterday, such as The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle).  There are books I know I read and loved even if I don’t remember much about them, and while sometimes it’s risky to recommend something you don’t remember all that well, in the case of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, which I persuaded the Field Notes Book Group to read for September, I felt reasonably confident.

Rereading it has been one of those absolute pleasures.  I remembered the inciting incident of the plot, that this woman’s husband pushed her off a cruise ship, intending her to die, but she survived by grabbing hold of a marijuana bale and made it to shore.  There, I remembered, she decided she was going to mess with her husband’s head by haunting his home and his new girlfriend.

All of this was in fact part of the book, so I was remembering that part accurately. I also had a dim memory that it was a really funny, if warped book, and, having just reread it, I can attest that that, too, was accurate.

There was just so much I’d forgotten.  With Hiaasen at his best, the plot is a twisted coil, with several things going on at the same time, and all the characters a little off plumb.  There’s something Wodehousian about his use of coincidence and his interlacing of characters with very different agendas, and I mean that as a high compliment.

Here you have Joey, an heiress and a former champion swimmer, married to a total scumbag, Chaz.  They’ve been married two years, and Joey hasn’t figured out where Chaz makes his money, but trust me, it’s through some slimy fraudulent dealings with people who should not be messed around with.  Chaz, believing Joey’s caught on to what he’s actually doing, decides to kill her and pretend she committed suicide, forgetting Joey’s swimming talents, which save her life.

Joey is rescued by a classic Hiaasen character, Mick Stranahan, a former cop who’s been retired kind of against his wishes and who is now more or less a hermit, but still willing to help out a lady in distress and mess with someone as obnoxious as Chaz.  There’s also a quirky police officer investigating Joey’s disappearance (quirky in his choice of reptilian pets, at the least, and there’s a whole subplot about his snakes) who doesn’t think much of Chaz’ changing story.  Chaz has a girlfriend, Ricca, who he was seeing while he was still married to Joey, and his relationship with Ricca starts to go sideways after the “murder.”  Not to mention Red Hammernut (Dickensian character names, you’ll notice), the big bad guy, rich industrialist who’s poisoning the Everglades and using Chaz to cover his tracks.  And when Chaz seems to be losing it (thanks to Joey and her shenanigans), Hammernut calls on his extremely quirky muscle, Tool, to babysit the rapidly deteriorating Chaz.  

These are all great characters, not a stereotype in the bunch, made delightfully odd by their personalities and their quirks, and their interplay is both surprising and inevitable based on who they are and what they’ve already done.  

There is violence in this book (Tool is good at his job), but for the most part it’s so over the top you can’t really be freaked out by it.  There are points where you are sure that even Hiaasen can’t possibly make all this work out right, but he does.  Justice is served (if in a warped fashion), people get what they deserve, and the ending is quite satisfying.

If I’d been afraid I would be disappointed on revisiting this book, I’m delighted to report that wasn’t the case.  If you haven’t made Hiaasen’s acquaintance before, this is a great book to introduce you to his work.  I’m looking forward to discussing his humor, his characters and his plotting with the folks in the Field Notes Book Group, and wish you the pleasure of diving into Skinny Dip yourself.

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