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Three To Get Ready

Mysteries featuring Shakespeare, Poe and Jimmy & the Slut Puppies


Carl Hiaasen's latest, Basket Case, is a bit of a departure for him. This is a more straightforward murder mystery that takes aim at the sorry state of the newspaper business, as opposed to his usual lambasting of Florida developers. Hiaasen, a native of South Florida and an award-winning investigative reporter before he turned his talents to columns and fiction, knows whereof he speaks. The basic plot involves the death of one James Bradley Stomarti, better known as Jimmy Stoma, lead singer/guitarist for Jimmy and the Slut Puppies. Reporter Jack Tagger has been busted to writing obituaries after confronting the new owners of the small daily newspaper where he works during a shareholders' meeting. He stumbles across an obit for Stoma and realizes that this story -- if there is a story -- could be his ticket back to the front page, at least for a "Death of a Rock Star" moment.

Jack believes there's even more of a story after he meets Stoma's young widow, a wanna-be rock singer with the unlikely name of Cleo Rio. Jack discovers the Widow Stoma has told two different versions of the events leading up to Stoma's death in a diving accident in the Bahamas, so he begins to investigate, even though he's been told not to by his editors.

In delving into both the sometimes sleazy world of the rock music biz and the nearly always surreal world of newspapers, Hiaasen has created a novel that's sort of This Is Spinal Tap meets, umm, maybe Lou Grant with a bit of The Chronicle thrown in. Parts are just -- in usual Hiaasen style -- laugh-out-loud funny.

Charlotte even gets into the act. On page 5, as Jack is researching Stoma's rather lengthy arrest record, there is mention of a May 14, 1986 arrest for "indecent exposure during a Charlotte, North Carolina, concert in which he takes an encore wearing nothing but a Day-Glo condom and a rubber Halloween mask in the likeness of the Rev. Pat Robertson." Aww-right!!

As Jack, once an award-winning investigative reporter, turns his talents to trying to figure out what really happened to Stoma, he also begins to fall in love. No, not with the widow but with his editor, a young lady he has sworn (to himself) to try to steer away from the newspaper business.

Overall, this one's calmer than usual for Hiaasen -- there's no villain with a weedwacker for an arm, no humping dolphins and no Skink (Hiaasen's main recurring character). But it's fun (and mayhem) in the sun -- what more do you want?

OK, OK -- here it is: Hiaasen co-wrote two songs on Warren Zevon's Mutineer album and the song "Basket Case" will be on Zevon's upcoming record.

In the Shakespeare and Smythe mystery series, author Simon Hawke makes considerable use of plots and counterplots straight out of Shakespeare's plays. It's a clever device and in the hands of a lesser writer could be coy and too cute. Instead it's a romping tribute to Shakespeare and the universal nature of his plays.

This particular adventure finds Tuck Smythe and his friend Will Shakespeare still working with the Queen's Men. Shakespeare is still proving his value as a "poet" (read: writer) who can help the players by revising their current repertoire. Smythe has discovered, much to his dismay, that he simply has no talent as a player. He can't learn lines and has no sense of timing. However, he's got a strong back and is willing to work hard -- and since he's Shakespeare's best friend, the company won't fire him.

In the first book, Smythe fell in love with Elizabeth Darcie, the daughter of a gentleman and a woman above his station in life. She had come to Smythe and Shakespeare for help and the two had kept in touch. Shakespeare tries to warn his friend that such a relationship has no chance.

In Slaying of the Shrew, it's plague season in London and everyone is looking for a way to leave the city for awhile. The players get a commission to perform for the celebration of a wedding of a wealthy merchant's daughter (who happens to be one of Elizabeth Darcie's best friends). The estate is outside the city and everyone who's anyone in London society is invited. A whole fair is set up on the grounds, too, for the wedding guests' amusement.

Hawke cleverly injects bits and pieces of the plots of both Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, with references and one-liners from these and other plays sown throughout the narrative. While it's somewhat easy to see where he's heading with the plot, the real fun comes when you stop and think "Aha! Now which play is that from?"

In A Strange City by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, 310 pages, $24)

Coming in on the sixth novel in an established mystery series might be confusing. Series novels tend to build on the ones before and readers who come in in the middle can easily decide there's just too many "insider" references to want to read on.

There's a bit of that going on in Laura Lippman's sixth and latest Baltimore set mystery, In A Strange City, but enough is explained to help make sense without getting bogged down. In fact, the hints/references made me want to search out the previous novels and get the full stories.

In a Strange City also has a really great hook -- Edgar Allan Poe. Poe had strong family ties to Baltimore, and while he lived in the city only a few years, he died and is buried there. One of the treasured traditions in the city is that every year on Poe's birthday, a cloaked figure visits his grave and leaves behind three roses and a half bottle of cognac. The "Poe Toaster," as he is known, as well as the author himself, become central to this murder mystery.

Tess Monaghan, a former newspaper reporter, has reinvented herself as a private investigator. Business has been slow, but Tess refuses to help an odd man who shows up at her office with claims that the Poe Toaster has deceived and cheated him.

Curious, though, Tess and her boyfriend, Crow, decide to attend the annual event where they witness a murder when not one, but two, Toasters show up and one is killed. Tess starts getting messages, couched in Poe's own words, and she can't figure out if her stalker is trying to help her or harm her.

Lippman, a newspaper writer herself, does a great job of describing Baltimore's neighborhoods and giving readers a feel for the city. She's also done her homework on Poe and Poe fans (think sort of literary Trekkers).

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