Novelist and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen writes with passion and purpose about the state he loves. His latest book, Bad Monkey, is an offbeat murder mystery set in Key West.
Originally broadcast June 13, 2013.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Carl Hiaasen is a native of Florida and a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald and humor writer who's become a go-to guest for TV journalists when something big happens in the sunshine state. He's some combination of cultural ambassador, social critic and voice of doom railing against greedy developers, corrupt politicians and outsiders who come to plunder the state's natural riches. Hiassen's written a series of mystery novels set in Florida and some children's books. His novel, "Strip Tease," was made into a film starring Demi Moore. And his 1986 book, "Tourist Season," was described as the first book about sex, murder and corruption on the professional bass fishing circuit. I spoke to Carl Hiaasen last year about his latest novel, "Bad Monkey,"- a typically funny and offbeat murder mystery involving some great Florida characters in outlandish situations. It's now out in paperback. And Hiaasen's published a new collection of his columns called "Dance Of The Reptiles."
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DAVIES: Carl Hiaasen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I thought we would begin with having you read us a bit from "Bad Monkey." This is a - this is the opening of Chapter 4, a description of the main character, Andrew Yancy. Do you want to just set this up for us?
CARL HIAASEN: Yeah, Yancy was a detective with the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, which is the Florida Keys, and he, due to some misbehavior, he got busted down to what's called the roach patrol, which is basically he's now inspecting the kitchens of various restaurants for vermin. And so it's somewhat not a lateral career move, and he's coping with it the best he can, and that's just how we start.
(Reading) Yancy received his first bribe offer at a tin-roofed seafood joint on Stock Island called Stoney's Crab Palace, where he had documented 17 serious health violations, including mouse droppings, rat droppings, chicken droppings, a tick nursery, open vats of decomposing shrimp, lobsters dating back to the first Bush presidency and, on a tray of baked oysters, a soggy condom. The owner's name was Brennan. He was slicing plantains when Yancy delivered the feared verdict - I've got to shut you down. A hundred bucks says you won't. Jesus, is that blood on your knife? OK, 200 bucks, said Brennan. Why aren't you wearing gloves, Yancy asked. Brennan continued slicing. Nilsson never gave me no trouble. He ate here all the time. And he died of hepatitis. He ate for free. That was our deal. Six years, never once did he step foot in my kitchen. Nilsson was a good man. Nilsson was a lazy (beep) whistle, Yancy said. I'm writing you up.
DAVIES: (Laughing) And that is our guest Carl Hiaasen reading from his new novel, "Bad Monkey." You know, you've written so much about Florida. In some respects, you're kind of a cultural representative of the state, almost, I suppose. It's a big place, with a lot of different regions. And, you know, Key West is different from Miami. Do you want to talk just a little bit - talk a little bit about Key West and it's, you know, what cultural vibe?
CARL HIAASEN: Well, I mean, Key West, I've always had a fond spot in my heart for Key West. It's very different from Miami. It's very different from the Panhandle, way different from Central Florida. It's been a pirate outpost since the 1800s. It was an area that, at the turn of the century - I mean, the 19th century turning to the 20th century - it was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States because of the treasure salvaging business. It existed on sort of the plunder of ships that went aground on the reefs in Key West. And so it's always attracted, if you go back to, you know, Hemingway, you go back, you know, I mean, it's attracted characters and outlaws and brigands from the early days. And it still does, to some extent. Certainly it was huge in the drug smuggling trade in the '70s and '80s, and it's always sort of had laws of its own.
And it's just a very, very colorful and diverse place to write about.
DAVIES: Right, and for folks that don't know the geography, I mean, it is among the Florida Keys, this little string of islands that extend out from the bottom of Florida, it's the very last one.
HIAASEN: Yeah, and it has the famous southernmost point in the United States, a little strip of beach with some sort of marker there that you can go get your picture taken. And it's - you know, and now, of course, they have cruise ships coming in, and that plays a bit of a part in "Bad Monkey.
DAVIES: Right, and the murder plot begins with the very first paragraph of the book, which, with your permission, I'll just read it.
DAVIES: (Reading) On the hottest day of July, trolling in dead calm waters near Key West, a tourist named James Mayberry reeled up a human arm. His wife flew to the bow of the boat and tossed her breakfast burritos.
In that lovely passage, we get a Carl Hiaasen kind of classic, I suppose, a grisly image of a crime and also a good laugh. Where did the severed arm come from?
HIAASEN: Well, there's even a line in the novel that refers to - for years, South Florida was sort of the severed body parts capital of North America. I mean, this was back, you know, in the drug wars and in the days before that, the mob wars. I mean, we were one of the early vacation spots for the - all of the five crime families from New York. So we have plenty of experience with severed body parts, and they turn up all the time.
And they go into the morgue, and they're catalogued. And in this case, it was just, you know, a day of fishing that - and initially the thought is that this was a boating accident, and somebody had drowned, and the shark had taken the rest of the body - which is normally what, you know, what you would guess in this situation. It doesn't turn out that way, but that's initially what everybody thinks, that somebody sunk their boat, and, you know, a shark moved in and took advantage of it. But of course that isn't the way it is in this story.
DAVIES: Right, and one of the things that you describe is that there's a lot of, you know, charter fishing out there, and this happens on a charter fishing boat. And I wonder if this is true, that some of these companies have a way of scamming some gullible sports fishermen into thinking he's caught a sailfish. Does this really happen?
HIAASEN: Well, this happened once, and the Herald - the Miami Herald wrote about it. And in fact, we sent a fake guy out on the boat to pretend he was fishing, and we had another boat watching it happen. And this was years ago, but it's an absolutely true story. They - it was called the sailfish - the dead sailfish scam. And what it was is they would load up the boat with sort of an unlikely - I mean, usually very, very gullible tourists.
And a mate would provide a distraction, say he'd see something on the other side of the boat. Hey, look over there, there's a school of dolphin, or there's whatever. And while he was doing that, another mate would reach into the icebox and pull out a sailfish that had been caught long ago, hook him on the line, let him loose in the back, you know, just kind of release it into the back of the boat and then shout - Fish on, fish on. And these - somebody would run back and reel in this limp, dead remains of a sailfish, which of course never jumps the way the sailfish are supposed to. But they were able to recycle this a fair number of times if you had a dumb enough customer. And what - the reason they did it was because they got a commission on the taxidermy. They would send the dimensions in to a taxidermy shop, and at the end of the day the guy was so thrilled to have caught a sailfish, he'd write a check, and the boat would pocket part of the check. So that was the scam, and it went on for a while until we wrote about it and took some pictures for the Herald. But it was one of the more brazen and ingenious scams I think I've ever heard about. I mean, it's a great deal of trouble to go to for a $7,500 fish deposit. But at the time, it was just classic South Florida. I mean, it was perfect. And it also said a lot about the quality of tourists we had at the time.
DAVIES: Come and show me a good time. I don't care whether it's real or not.
HIAASEN: No, they don't care, just reel in a dead fish.
DAVIES: There's a part of the story that takes place in the Bahamas.
DAVIES: And there's a woman known as the Dragon Queen. Do you want to describe her and tell us where she came from?
HIAASEN: Well, I'll describe her as far as I can. I spent a lot of time over in the Bahamas, and I like it quite a bit over there. I do a lot of fishing over there. But I heard this tale repeated on several visits about a women who was sort of a black widow figure who had had - at least three of her boyfriends had died under mysterious circumstances after breaking up with her. A fourth had fled to Cuba. And she was a practitioner of voodoo, and the whole island was terrified of her. And I made some efforts to sort of see her house or at least where she lived. I didn't really want to make her acquaintance or take her out for dinner or anything, but I just thought it would be - but I couldn't find anyone who would take me, even, into the neighborhood. They said they would drop me off and let me walk, and I, being the chicken at heart that I am, I didn't do it. But I did, I did sort of - I was inspired by the story of this person who is still very much alive. So I just sort of shamelessly stole the stories that I'd heard and weaved it into this character who plays a part, along with the bad monkey, of course.
Now, the monkey I didn't - I didn't have any particular inspiration for the monkey, but I did know that the Johnny Depp pirate movies were all filmed near this area that I was writing about. And they had a number of monkeys that they used. You know, they have the main monkey. They have a stand-in monkey. They have a stunt monkey. You know, I knew all that. So I just kind of took that idea and ran with it. But I - and my vision of the monkey was of a show business monkey that just crashed and burned and went bad, sort of the, you know, sort of a Lindsay Lohan of monkeys.
HIAASEN: And that he got fired from the set of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie and found his way to this island.
DAVIES: Well, right. And you might as well just tell us a little bit more about this particular monkey, who goes by the name of Mr. Driggs, right?
HIAASEN: Driggs. Driggs is his name, and, you know, he's sort of got a sad story, but he makes his own problems, as most monkeys do. But here's what - you know, in every movie it seems you go to now, and TV sitcoms and everywhere you look, there's sort of a gratuitous monkey - you know, "The Hangover" series. And I wanted a monkey with a back-story. I wanted a monkey who was a complete character, who had a literary role in the book. So I just sort of imagined a history for this monkey who was, you know, who was managed, had managers in L.A. and got into the set in the Exuma Islands to do this movie, and then he does a couple of very bad things on the set of the movie and he gets himself fired, and he ends up on this island.
DAVIES: Right. And the monkey wears diapers, we should mention.
HIAASEN: Well, yeah. And if you've ever owned a monkey, you know that's pretty important. They're not big on hygiene.
DAVIES: OK, OK.
HIAASEN: I had a monkey briefly myself. I can state that hygiene is not a top priority for the monkey kingdom.
DAVIES: Well, did you enjoy the monkey? How did it work out?
HIAASEN: It worked out badly, Dave.
HIAASEN: It worked out very badly. I was about - literally, this is a true story. I was about - I got him, maybe 11 or 12 years old, and it was - and I looked in the back of one of these outdoor magazines, and it said pet monkey. $16.95, 16 dollars and 95 cents. I didn't tell my mother. I'd worked around the house. I got the money together, me and my little sister, and I sent off for this monkey without really telling her I was doing it.
So one day, the UPS truck pulls up, or some delivery truck, and this crate comes off, and there's this incredibly pissed-off monkey. And I took one look at him, I knew - and I knew. And she looked - my mom looked at me and said, oh, I can't wait for your father to see this. And so I was afraid - no one really would go anywhere near the crate, that was the monkey's state of mind when he got there. My little brother, who was about 4 years old, said to me, hey, can I pet the monkey? And being a bigger brother, I said, absolutely. Go ahead. Pet the monkey. And it just bit the hell out of my - I mean, it just gnawed, chawed on him for a long time. And so the monkey lasted about 48 hours, and then I don't know where it went.
DAVIES: Sad story, another sad story in South Florida.
HIAASEN: It was a sad story, but in those days - the good news is you can't order them by mail anymore, so...
DAVIES: OK, OK. The name of the book is "Bad Monkey." It's written by our guest, Carl Hiaasen. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Carl Hiaasen. He is a columnist for the Miami Herald and writer. His latest novel is called "Bad Monkey." One more character from the book I'd like to hear you describe: Evan Shook.
HIAASEN: Oh, yeah.
DAVIES: Our protagonist, Andrew Yancy, lives, what, near the water, and he had this nice view of the sunset until this character Evan Shook comes in. Tell us about him.
HIAASEN: We've all had this. Maybe not, but many of us in Florida have had this experience. Andrew Yancy is, on his policeman's salary, now his roach inspector's salary, has got a modest little place on a beautiful island called Big Pine Key. It's actually a fairly big island in that chain of the Keys on the way to Key West. And he - all he lives for is his sunset every day. You just sit on the deck, and you watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Mexico, and tranquility ensues. And this guy buys this lot next to him and decides to build a spec house. He has no intention of living there himself, Evan Shook doesn't, but his idea is to build a gigantic house and sell it for a lot of money and finance his future separation from his wife. And so the house starts going up, and of course it's much larger, taller than the code, the building code in the Keys allows. This is no impediment to anyone resourceful enough in the Keys to face that problem, because there's lots of buildings that are bigger when they're built than they were on paper. And so Yancy just fumes, and it just, it keeps - the house keeps getting bigger. His sunset keeps getting smaller, and he embarks on sort of a subtle commando campaign to discourage Evan Shook from fulfilling his dream.
DAVIES: Yeah, there's some very funny stuff there. But again, there's a theme here, which is folks in Florida make money as they choose to, and, you know, regulation is, eh, kind of spotty.
HIAASEN: Yeah, well, in the Keys it's always been a little - it's been a little loose. But the point is that everybody there is there because they love the natural beauty of the place. And it may be just a little sliver of beauty. It may just be this view or that view, but then someone comes along who has no natural love for the Keys or for, you know, anything except making dough, and he just throws up this monstrosity of a structure. You know, and while most of us would just fantasize about sabotage, Yancy puts it into motion.
DAVIES: Right. Some very - in some very clever ways. You grew up in the Fort Lauderdale area. Is that right?
HIAASEN: Yes, Dave. I was - I grew up in a suburb of Lauderdale out west called Plantation.
DAVIES: Right. What was your childhood like, in particular, you know, your relationship to the outdoor world of South Florida?
HIAASEN: Well, I mean, I was lucky enough to grow up before there was - were any, at least in our neighborhood, any strip malls or any development at all. And so every day, I'd get home from school and get on my bike, and I'd just ride really a mile or two out and be right on the edge of the Everglades. And it was the best childhood imaginable. You could, you know, fish and camp and do whatever you - you just were in the middle of nowhere in no time at all, and that's what I - that's what I remember. I mean, there were no skate parks. I mean, there was nothing. But it was great. It was just an incredible childhood and probably one that exists in other parts of the country, and maybe even still in other parts of Florida, but certainly not there anymore. It's all concrete now.
DAVIES: So, you know, your journalistic career covers a period in which Florida has been - I don't want to use the term invaded, but, you know, it is a state that is, you know, certainly at times of year, so full of tourists and retirees. Have you sort of - have you reconciled yourself to outsiders and their role in the state?
HIAASEN: Well, I mean, you use the word invaded, I think is too mild. I use the word trampled, stampeded is what I usually use. Yeah. I mean, the population since I was born in 1953, the population has more than quintupled in the state. And that - and try to imagine any place absorbing that kind of population change and the transformation that you would watch if you lived here. I mean, it's traumatic. And have I reconciled? Sure, I have no illusions about - I mean, I've been writing for 40 years trying to scare people out of this place, and I haven't done a very good job of it.
HIAASEN: I get letters from people all the time saying I love your books. Please don't hate me, but I'm moving to Florida, anyway.
DAVIES: You know, the other thing that I've always thought about Florida is that it must be so frustrating that when it's beautiful outside, the place can be overrun with people that you wish weren't there.
DAVIES: I mean, when I went to Del Ray Beach to visit my in-laws years ago, you couldn't get into the parking lot at the grocery store because there were all of these people.
HIAASEN: Oh, my gosh.
DAVIES: And then in the summer, when the population shrinks, it's, well, dreadfully hot, I would think. It's kind of a dilemma, isn't it?
HIAASEN: It is. It is hot, but, I mean, you know, you grow - I grew up in that heat. I don't mind the heat at all. But you're right, there is this dichotomy, and you do - it's beautiful. When you travel a little bit, like I do, and you're up north in the cold and the rain and the sleet, you understand why people can't wait to get on a plane to come to Florida. I mean, I get it. Everybody understands it. But it's true. I know Del Ray, I know the parking lot experience. I know the grocery store - I had a friend of mine who used to manage one of those big grocery stores, Publix. And he would come - he had the greatest stories about fistfights and brawls over the pickles. And the slip-and-falls were classic. They had to - this was back in the day, and they had to put up video cameras because they had old people that would come in on a regular basis and fall down on purpose and sue the store. And they knew who they were. So they started videotaping them as soon as they came in, because they knew they were just looking for a place to pretend to fall, do a flop, you know, do a LeBron right there, you know, right in the front entrance of the store. And it was just classic Florida. Who else does this? You know, where you - you know, let's go to the grocery store and stage a lawsuit. Oh, great. Now, how about that? And then we can pick up dinner while we're there.
DAVIES: Well, Carl Hiaasen, it's been fun to have you again. Thanks so much.
HIAASEN: Thanks, Dave. Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Carl Hiaasen has a new collection of his columns called "Dance Of The Reptiles." His book, "Bad Monkey," is out in paper-back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.