Cover to first edition
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf (USA) & Macmillan (UK)|
|Publication date||January 2002|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Pages||336 pp (hardback edition)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-375-41107-0 (hardback edition) & ISBN 0-446-61193-X (paperback edition)|
|Dewey Decimal||813/.54 21|
|LC Classification||PS3558.I217 B37 2002|
|Preceded by||Sick Puppy|
|Followed by||Skinny Dip|
Basket Case, published in 2002, is the ninth novel by Carl Hiaasen. It is a classic Hiaasen crime novel, set in Florida. It opens with the death of James Stomarti (aka Jimmy Stoma), an ostensibly washed-up former lead man of "Jimmy and the Slut Puppies".
A typical Hiaasen protagonist, a journalist, suspects the widow of former rocker Jimmy Stoma to be involved in his death, and investigates the case while dealing with several personal issues.
In addition to being a good old-fashioned murder mystery, the novel is also a frank exploration of the pros and cons of a career in newspaper journalism, and a passionate screed against the downsizing of American newspapers and their corporate owners’ emphasis on profitability over depth. This theme is introduced tentatively in Hiaasen’s novel “Lucky You” but explored fully here.
The book is named for Jimmy Stoma's hit song. While writing the book, Hiaasen collaborated with singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, a longtime friend. The song appears as the second track on Zevon's 2002 album My Ride's Here. It is quoted several times throughout the book, and is printed in its entirety at the end (credited to Jimmy Stoma and Warren Zevon).
Jack Tagger, aged forty-six, is an obituary writer for the Union-Register (a fictitious South Florida newspaper). He becomes excited on seeing a death notice for James Bradley Stomarti aka Jimmy Stoma, lead man of the rock band Jimmy and the Slut Puppies.
Jack interviews Jimmy’s widow, pop singer Cleo Rio (her stage name comes from the rumor that she flashed a sight of her pubic area during one of her music videos), who says that Jimmy died in a diving accident in the Bahamas. Cleo also plugs her new upcoming album, with a title song co-written by Jimmy and herself.
Jimmy's sister Janet tells him Cleo lied: Jimmy was working on his own comeback album. Jack gets more suspicious when he visits Jimmy’s corpse in a funeral home and find that no autopsy was performed on his body. However, before Jack can call for an official autopsy, Jimmy’s body is cremated.
Jack used to be an investigative reporter, but was demoted to the obituary beat after publicly insulting Race Maggad III, the CEO of the newspaper’s publishing company. His ambition is to climb back onto the front page by “yoking my byline to some famous stiff.” He tries to convince his editor, the “impossible” Emma to let him investigate Jimmy’s death, but she refuses.
Jack’s current job has taken its toll on his life; writing obituaries all day long, he has become morbidly obsessed with death, especially his own. The novel is peppered with references to famous persons and the ages they died: John F. Kennedy and Elvis Aaron Presley) (46), Steve McQueen (50), Hank Williams (29), Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones and Jim Morrisson (27), and Bebe the bottlenose dolphin, "one of seven who played Flipper on TV" (41). Each year, Jack obsesses about people who died at his age, and about the fate of his deceased father, who disappeared when Jack was young. These obsessions cost him his favorite girlfriend, Anne.
Parked outside Cleo’s condominium one night, Jack sees her with a young man, an obvious sex partner.
Emma relents and gives Jack a week to investigate Jimmy's death. Jack tracks down Jay Burns, the Slut Puppies’ old keyboardist, and Jimmy’s dive partner. Jay is heavily stoned, but to Jack it is obvious he is lying about something. Later that night, a burglar breaks into Jack’s apartment. Jack attacks him with the frozen corpse of a dead Savannah Monitor lizard which he keeps in his freezer. Jack is beaten unconscious, but the burglar disappears. A few hours later, two police detectives show up and tell him Jay Burns has been found murdered.
His apartment trashed, Jack goes to stay with Emma. They decide to search the boat where he interviewed Jay. After careful searching, they find an external hard drive concealed inside the false bottom of a scuba tank.
Jack is depressed to hear from his friend Carla Candilla, Anne’s teenaged daughter, that Anne is getting married again — worse, to a hack spy novelist. Meeting her at a club, he catches sight of Cleo's boyfriend, a man who calls himself "Loreal" and claims to be her record producer.
Jack and Emma are alarmed when Janet disappears from her home. Jack finds a small patch of blood on her carpet.
With the help of Jack's best friend, sports writer Juan Rodriguez, Jack decrypts the hard drive and finds it contains master recordings for Jimmy’s unfinished new album. Listening to it, Jack is still baffled in looking for a motive for Jimmy’s murder, if he was murdered. The cruel fact is, to most of the music industry Jimmy was a has-been.
To Jack’s surprise, Emma spends the night with him at his apartment. A few days later, she excitedly tells him that another former Slut Puppy, Tito Negroponte, was shot but not killed in Los Angeles. Jack flies to California and interviews the bass player, who puts his finger on why Cleo killed Jimmy: she wanted a song from his album, “Shipwrecked Heart” for herself. Jack listens to the song, telling Emma that Cleo’s desperate to put out another hit before she fades from the scene, and Jimmy’s song is better than anything she can write. Still, Jack admits that he can’t prove that Cleo killed Jimmy.
Cleo's bodyguard kidnaps Emma, and she demands the master in exchange for her. At the climactic confrontation on Lake Okeechobee, Jack and Juan meet the bodyguard and Loreal, and trade the master for Emma. Then the bodyguard tries to kill all of them, but ends up upending the airboat he’s driving, with fatal results.
The day after the rescue is Jack’s 47th birthday. Carla calls from Anne's wedding to wish him a happy one. Jack’s mother sends him a card with a copy of his father’s obituary; she confesses that he died at age 46. (“See? You made it!”)
Janet resurfaces, saying she skipped town when Cleo’s goons broke into her house. She confesses to Jack that she switched the tags on a pair of coffins at the funeral home, meaning Jimmy’s body wasn’t cremated, but is buried in the wrong man’s grave. At her request, the body is exhumed, and autopsied, and the pathologist finds that Jimmy was drugged before diving off the boat, causing him to pass out underwater and drown. Cleo is arrested, tried, and convicted of murder; Jack sails back onto the front page covering the story. Jimmy’s posthumous album is a hit.
A subplot focuses on Jack’s ongoing feud with Race Maggad III, and the ailing state of the Union-Register since Maggad bought it. Maggad’s policy has been to increase the newspaper’s profits to the maximum by cutting down as much as possible on the actual gathering and reporting of news – less space in the paper devoted to news and more to advertisements, fewer reporters and editors employed, and stories that are deferential to business interests and lacking in depth. After Jack insulted him at a shareholders’ meeting, Maggad demoted Jack to the obituary page, expecting him to quit in humiliation. Instead, Jack finds an ally in MacArthur Polk, the newspaper's former publisher. Like Jack, Polk is furious about what Maggad has done to his newspaper, and now holds a position of power, because he owns a large number of shares in Maggad’s publicly-traded company, which Maggad is desperate to buy back before two foreign companies initiate a hostile takeover.
Polk dies on the same night Jack rescues Emma. His will names Jack trustee of his shares, with instructions that Maggad can have the stock back, but only if he sells the Union-Register back to Polk’s family. Maggad reluctantly agrees. The new publisher, Polk’s widow, restores the paper to its former glory. Emma is promoted, and the novel ends as she is trying to talk Jack back from his leave of absence from journalism.
Hiaasen colorfully lampoons both of these moves:
“Race Maggad is aiming for annual profits of twenty-five percent, a margin that would be the envy of most heroin pushers.”
“The priorities of young Race Maggad III became clear when, out of the blue, he announced that Maggad-Feist would be moving its corporate headquarters from Milwaukee to San Diego. A corporate press release claimed that the reason for the move was to capitalize on the dynamic, high-tech workforce in California. The truth is more banal: Race Maggad wanted to live in a climate where he could drive his German sports cars year-round, far from the ravages of Wisconsin winters. The salt damage to his Carrera alone was rumored to be in the five figures.”