Picks and Pans Review: Basket Case

updated 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/14/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

By Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen's latest is a gritty drama of life in inner-city Chicago. Yeah, right. Actually, Basket Case is another sunny South Florida caper from a master of the comic crime novel. Hiaasen's recent books—usually starring fed-up journalists and P.I.s sending greedy developers to a vividly imagined doom—have become a little like the SUVs loathed by his eco-warrior heroes. They're impressively engineered and fun, but cumbersome.

Leaner and quieter, Basket Case is a nifty but straightforward murder mystery, Hiaasen's freshest work in years. Jack Tagger is an investigative reporter who has been busted down to the obituary page for mouthing off to his new boss, a corporate weasel. Jack takes to obsessing over celebrities who died at his age. "If death could snatch such heavy hitters as Elvis and JFK," he points out, "a nobody like me is easy pickings." He wants off the morgue watch, so when a rocker named Jimmy Stoma dies in a suspicious accident, Jack is determined to make an actual news story out of it to get his name back on the front page. He suspects Stoma's widow, a rising pop star. Can Jack solve the mystery, secure his promotion and find romance while he's at it? Well, duh. The only question is, how much fun are we going to have along the way? With its streamlined story, this novel has fewer laughs than the typical Hiaasen book, but the overall effect is as delicious as ever. (Knopf, $25.95)

Bottom Line: A very strong Case

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