What makes us pick up new books by the same crime novelists time and time again? The jaundiced aficionado demands only that a favourite author recycles their sure-fire tropes in a surprising fashion and couldn't give a damn about redefinitions of the thriller form. On that basis, both Carl Hiaasen and John Connolly can be relied upon to push all of our buttons without challenging conventions too radically.
Connolly delivers such grisly and adroitly plotted novels as The White Road without working up a sweat. A sardonic Irishman who has become one of the most distinguished practitioners of US crime-writing, he has an unerring ear for the American idiom, so that all his books (notably this latest) convey vividly evoked locations.
In the South Carolina of The White Road, a black man has been condemned to death for the rape and murder of the daughter of one of the richest men in the state. Needless to say, nobody wants to come near a case like this, but laconic dick Charlie Parker – the "Bird" encountered in previous offerings from Connolly – is an old hand at unwinnable cases. For him, though, an involvement in the case becomes very personal. A fundamentalist preacher in a prison cell takes a bizarre revenge on Parker using a strange creature that keeps its secrets buried near a riverbank.
The book synthesises literate, poetic writing with scarifying grue: a marriage that produces far more persuasive results than the by-numbers blood-letting of so much crime writing. As the phantasmagorical narrative barrels towards a bizarre conclusion in the Southern swamps, Parker must travel the eponymous White Road to a nightmare reckoning.
Connolly's speciality has always been strip-mining the evil that resides in the darkest psychic corners, and this is his most extreme venture into that territory. There are few writers who are prepared to take such a plunge into the kind of psychopathology that underpins The White Road, and the squeamish would be better off with something cosier. Agatha Christie this ain't.
When a whole slew of authors admit to being influenced by Carl Hiaasen, it's clear that his cult status is established. But the self-conscious, surrealistic quality of his writing is a hard act to sustain. Although such books as Tourist Season brilliantly create a world very much his own, there is a certain suspense with the appearance of each new title.
Can he pull it off again? In the case of Basket Case, the answer is a (qualified) yes, although his delirious plotting is more reined-in than usual. Set in his Florida stamping ground, this new outing sports a mélange of journalists, rock'n'roll, and lizards. Always count on a nasty reptile in the Hiaasen mix, as omnipresent as the bears in John Irving.
Basket Case is as outrageously entertaining as its predecessors. Jack Tagger is the kind of journalist encountered many times in the crime novel, haplessly given to screwing himself in both career and relationships. Rubbing up people the wrong way has consigned him to the graveyard of the obituary page. He has made a particular enemy of his paper's owner, Race Maggad III.
Then Jack stumbles on the story of a lifetime: rock star James Stomarti has cashed in his chips in a diving accident, and Jack finds that his sexy starlet widow stands to gain from her husband's death. Jack begins to dig for the truth, but finds himself up against not just the politics of his paper, but some pretty dangerous enemies. The lunacies of the rock world are vividly conjured, and this is no mean achievement – this territory is always a snare and delusion for thriller writers who can't resist warmed-over, Spinal Tap-style digs.
Basket Case may be less pungent and inventive than most Hiaasen, but it's still a heady brew. The real Florida can't be as entertaining as Hiaasen's Dali-esque vision, can it?Reuse content