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Skin Tight
By Carl Hiaasen
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Most people, having lost a hand to a marauding barracuda, would not have it replaced by a weed whacker. But Chemo isn't most people - he's a phlegmatic six-foot-nine-inch hitman with a face like a bowl of Rice Krispies. Having visited a dermatologist to have a minor blemish removed from his nose, you see, Chemo was anesthetized when the old medic had a sudden stroke and went haywire. Upon awakening, Chemo saw what had happened and promptly garroted the unfortunate doctor.

Fit now only for a life outside the law, Chemo threw aside his Amish upbringing and became a gun-for-hire - and that's how he came to lose the hand, in the course of trying to kill retired investigator Mick Stranahan. Stranahan, who is trying to cure himself of an addiction to romancing and marrying cocktail waitresses, lives alone and content in a house raised on stilts above the ocean not far from Miami. He has become the unwitting target of sleazy plastic surgeon Rudy Graveline. Graveline presided over the accidental death of a patient during a routine rhinoplasty procedure four years earlier, and the news of this infraction is about to get out. Graveline believes that Stranahan is the one responsible for the outbreak, and is taking steps to have him eliminated before he can spill all he knows.

The irony is that Stranahan doesn't know a damn thing - but that is going to change. He doesn't take lightly to the idea that someone is after him, and he still has plenty of contacts among the police and among the key island community. On the other hand, because of his straight-forward methods, Mick Stranahan also has more than a few enemies… including at least one ex-wife who casually refers to him, more than once, as a "dangerous lunatic."

Dr. Graveline is the cat's pajamas amongst the elderly and moneyed Miami elite. He's wealthy despite his utter incompetence, because he can afford to hire other, able, surgeons to do his work for him while he rakes in the cash. And, up until recently, he's been very secure in his position: "One of the wondrous things about Florida, Rudy Graveline thought as he chewed on a jumbo shrimp, was the climate of unabashed corruption: There was absolutely no trouble from which money could not extricate you . . . Since the medical board was made up mostly of other doctors, Rudy Graveline had fully expected exoneration-- physicians stick together like shit on a shoe." (p.95)

Meanwhile, Reynaldo Flemm, star of a muckraking TV news show, is also investigating the death. Egotistical and vain to a fault, Flemm's happiest moments are when he is being beat up on camera by some outraged victim of an expose. Flemm plans to get the goods on Rudy Graveline from the inside - as a patient himself.

Reynaldo's producer, an attractive and down-to-earth young woman, thinks Reynaldo is a complete twit but he is, as they say, "the talent," and so she has to humor him. While following up on one of his leads, she comes into contact with Mick Stranahan. As a result of this, she finds her life, too, is endangered by Chemo, who is receiving plastic surgery from Dr. Graveline on a barter basis for Chemo's hit on Stranahan.

Dazzled yet? Trust me -- things just keep getting wilder. Skin Tight the first one of Hiaasen's books that I have read. Since then I've given the time of day to Lucky You and Sick Puppy, and can likewise attest to the complexity and hilarity of those books. Floridians in the know seem to regard Hiaasen as a dedicated and committed investigative reporter. Certainly he has received many awards and kudos from his peers. I can only assume that at least some of the lupine characters he draws have uncomfortably accurate counterparts in real life.

Doctors and TV "reality" reporters, however, are not the only professions Hiaasen gleefully slams. He also has plenty of bitch-slaps for corrupt lawyers, politicians, police officers, and judges. Never fear -- the "good guys" win, and the "bad guys," including Dr. Graveline, lose. But not everyone emerges unscathed, vide Chemo. Dr. Graveline meets his demise in a particularly gruesome way that will not be revealed here, but suffice it to say that poetic justice is served. The same may be said for the death of his dim, sycophantic brother, a tree trimmer.

Carl Hiaasen has to be one of the best writers of light commercial thriller-type fiction going these days. His characters are endlessly fascinating, and his situations are refreshing and occasionally pretty disturbing. All in all, he writes as if he's pushing top end on a sports car on a twisty mountain road. If Hunter S. Thompson ever felt like writing a thriller with a strong sense of conscience, he might turn out something similar to Skin Tight.

BIO: Carl Hiaasen was born and raised in Florida, and his dream is to be banned forever from Disney World. He has worked for the Miami Herald since 1976 as an award-winning investigative reporter, magazine writer, and, for the last thirteen years, a metropolitan columnist. His novels include TOURIST SEASON, NATIVE TONGUE, and LUCKY YOU, and have been translated into twenty-one languages. He has also contributed lyrics to two songs by Warren Zevon, "Rottweiler Blues" and "Seminole Bingo."

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