Carl Hiaasen: Who says that crime doesn't pay?

His fiction depends for inspiration on the grotesque, the greedy and the utterly bizarre. And that, the cult crime writer Carl Hiaasen tells Thomas Sutcliffe, is why he could never leave his native Florida
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I have two newspaper clippings tucked into my copy of Basket Case when I turn up to interview Carl Hiaasen – Miami's laureate of sun-kissed sleaze. His new book, the latest in a series of comically guignol thrillers, includes a scene in which the hero uses a deep-frozen monitor lizard to beat off an attacker. So I imagine that he might be tickled to find that reptile assault isn't confined to the Sunshine Coast or the alarming beachfront of his own literary imagination. He politely scans the court report about Iggy – an iguana which had been employed as an offensive weapon during an Isle of Wight pub brawl – and then murmurs something about having heard about it already.

It belatedly dawns on me that this must happen to him quite a lot; readers proudly bringing in scraps of journalistic weirdness in the way that cats present dead mice to their owners, anxious to establish common ground. It is definitely a placatory offering in my case, anyway, since I am uncomfortably aware that I am here in the role of pain in the arse to talk to a man who has put on record the fact that he enjoys publicity interviews "slightly less than prostate exams".

I wouldn't bet against an interviewer turning up in the prose sometime in the future, though, and turning up in a way that might make interviewers fidget. Because Hiaasen's great talent – above and beyond his eye for the grotesque and his moral rage against the despoliation of his native state – is his genius for condign revenge. These are books in which cruise liners are bombed from the air with shopping bags full of rattlesnakes, in which a moronic thug ends up with a Rottweiler's head clamped to his gangrenous arm, in which a litterbug returns to find that his open-top Beemer has been buried beneath a mountain of rotting garbage.

And the offence, in almost every case, is the amoral greed which Hiaasen identifies as uniquely characteristic of south Florida. "In a place like Florida, there's no such word as 'enough'," he says, beginning a familiar riff on the state's peculiar psychosis. "It's how many more people can we cram in and how much can we sell them and how much beach can we cut up into little tiny pieces and tell them this is their little piece of paradise. Florida is a place where growth itself is an industry. Basically, it's the operating mechanism of a cancer cell."

And when I suggest that you might find similar oddities elsewhere in the United States, he insists on Florida's supremacy in the field with something like proprietary pride. "Florida, to paraphrase Bush, is an axis of weirdness. I tell people it's no accident that 14 of the 19 hijackers from 11 September moved to south Florida. They knew. They sat around in Hamburg, wherever they did the planning, and said, 'Where's the one place we can go in the United States where the level of misbehaviour and the freak factor is so high that we will never be noticed and never be questioned?' South Florida! You've got enough cash, nobody's going to ask any questions. 'Sure, use the flight simulator!'"

And yet Hiaasen also loves the place – or loves its prelapsarian condition, the wild place now threatened by condos and strip clubs and theme parks. When his Norwegian grandfather moved down from North Dakota in 1922 after a frigid false start on naturalisation, he found only swamp and woodland. When he died, at the age of 100, almost everything had changed. "He was pretty shocked," Hiaasen recalls, and the shock was shared by his grandson, whose ecological indignation started early, when the places he played in began disappearing beneath developer's bulldozers.

That writing might offer a vent for the rage was an early discovery, too. "I wrote a little newsletter in high school," Hiaasen explains, "a kind of counterpoint to the rah-rah newspaper. Mine was very irreverent and poked fun at the principal. I'd get dirty looks, but on the other hand, I had so many people come up to me and say, 'Hey, man, I didn't know you were funny", and there was something so rewarding in being able to make people laugh."

After he graduated he went into journalism, first as a general feature writer and then as a member of the Miami Herald's investigative team – a deep and murky well from which he has drawn ever since. After one particularly lengthy investigation, Hiaasen took time out to write his first solo novel, Tourist Season, and was offered a column by an astute editor. Once he had unleashed the full scope of his spleen, he realised that there was no going back to the purported objectivity of serious reporting. The books, he says more than once during our conversation, were a kind of psychotherapy for him. "The novels were always, to my mind, something I did on the side, just to work out these demons. Then you end up profiting from it. And, in my own defence, the one way I would rationalise it is that it does get the gospel out."

We are talking Old Testament, I think. Hiaasen relishes the iniquity of his enemies – he once described the Disney Corporation as "an agent of pure wickedness" – and cherishes their punishment. These are novels in which the unrighteous are smitten, and smitten with a divine ingenuity. When I ask Hiaasen whether he had ever visited his wrath on the ungodly more directly, he denies it. "My characters have done certain things that I wish I would have done, and I can say that they've done certain things that I know have been done in real life. But most of what I do is venting; the legal outlets are always preferable."

He is an unusual mixture of courteous decorum and sudden spasms of verbal violence, a man who can talk about "cussing" one moment (when describing the children's book he's writing) and then describe how he "just wanted to tee off on the fuckers", when recalling his treatment of white supremacists in his novel Lucky You.

The disgust you glimpse at these moments is not a marketing ploy or a literary device – it's the real thing, and there's nothing wishy-washy about its expression. Hiaasen has witnessed an execution by electric chair and experienced the nightmares that follow, but his objection to the death penalty is practical, not moral. "Ted Bundy cost the State of Florida $5m and 10 or 11 years just to try the sorry son of a bitch, and it would have been cheaper to stick him in a cell and forget about him," he explains, while making it clear that if execution was cost-effective and 100 per cent foolproof, he wouldn't have much of a problem with it.

Basket Case – in which the indignation has temporarily shifted from ecological vandalism to the degradation of American journalism – strikes me as a mellower book than some of its predecessors; vanilla mayhem rather than any wilder flavours. Hiaasen puts this down partly to the fact that he was writing for the first time in the first person, but he acknowledges that his novels – unlike the columns he writes – are a place where everything can be guaranteed to turn out right. "One of the great pleasures of writing fiction is that you can make the good guys get what they deserve and the bad guys are always going to get what they deserve. It doesn't happen often enough in real life."

His humour, he agrees, is an analgesic and there are limits to its therapeutic effectiveness. The other clipping tucked inside Basket Case, somewhere around the section detailing a night-time chase on Lake Okeechobee, is a report on a brother and sister from the same area, who were recently discovered living with their 13 children and grandchildren and the corpse of their dead infant in a coffin in the living room.

It's another corroboration of Hiaasen's theory that Florida is a hot-spot for human derangement. But it's also the kind of gothic horror you would never find in a Hiaasen novel, because it could never be played for laughs. He has sometimes thought about dropping the comedy, he says, but "it would be forced. I've had the selfish luxury of being able to write in a narrative tone that truly reflects my view of the world."

The thing about an analgesic, I realise as I leave, is that it offers symptomatic relief, but no permanent cure. Perhaps no novel could, though – and in the absence of that, reading a Hiaasen book is a pretty reliable way of making yourself feel better for a while.

'Basket Case' is published by Macmillan, priced £10

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