Some of the most successful people in life started off as a group but found a far greater future going solo. Michael Jackson, Robbie Its My Birthday and I will Go into Rehab if I Want To Williams and Beyonce have shown this to be true. This happens less often in other medias as working together does not always encourage a unique viewpoint. In the world of literature having two people writing a book together poses unique problems. Imagine that you have been a successful journalist when you decide to write a series of books with a close pal. Maybe this would create a great infusion of ideas that makes the book twice as good. Or maybe the book will be ruined by your mate trying to butt in with their useless ideas. At some point you are going to have to let them go and try and write what you have always wanted. If Carl Hiaasen had continued to work with William Montalbano it is likely that we would never have heard of either.
Chris Meadows is an architect living in early 80s Miami. He is horrified when he witnesses the death of an ex-lover and her child who are caught up in a fight between two rival gangs. Meadows is seen by one of the killers and becomes a marked man. The help he hoped he would get from maverick cop does not appear and he is instead forced to try and bring the killers to justice himself. This results in him going undercover to investigate the up and coming drug barons of the area. Unfortunately for Meadows his interest in the case coincides with a new drugs war and forces him to run for his life - or seek out and kill the killers.
What makes Hiaasen books stand out is that they are filled with a wicked sense of humour. He is able to create stories that are not only good crime thrillers, but very fun to read. Powder Burn was his first joint attempt with Montalbano and suffers dramatically when compared to his later work. There is absolutely no comedy and the book reads like a middle of the road Miami Vice episode. Perhaps is Hiaasen had not gone on to greater things this book would not suffer from these comparisons, but there are also other issues.
The entire story centres on the emerging cocaine smuggling rings that plagued Miami in the late 70s and early 80s. As this book was written at the time there is no retrospective look at the period, but a straight laced look at the impact rising gang warfare has on American society. This means that the book is not only unfunny, but also feels very dated. Most of the literature that looks back on the early 80s does so with a sense of knowing and a little humour, Hiaasen and Montalbano treat the subject material far too sensibly for my liking. The story also suffers slightly from being a bit too linear whilst far fetched in other places. The plot runs without many twists, but when they come it is because the character of Meadows all of a sudden decides to become an amateur detective. The lack of power to the plot is not helped by the introduction being so explosive; the authors were not able to keep up the standard of the first few pages. Having a good start can actually prove detrimental to the rest of the story
The characters of Meadows and the Inspector are what stop this book from being a complete failure. Meadows is a mild mannered architect who finds himself trapped in a situation that is unable to escape from. How do you reason with a cold blooded killer? Although it did not seem that lifelike his journey from a normal life to one of cocaine abuse and criminal manipulation is an interesting one. The fact that Hiaasen and Montalbano have put Meadows up against a disgruntled Cuban Inspector is a masterstroke. The Inspector acts as a vessel for the reader to understand that there is no reasoning with people in the drug trade. He is willing to do anything to get the scum from his streets, even if it may cost the life of an innocent man.
I feel that Hiaasen and Montalbano were probably writing this book as a fictional account of what they have learnt as Pulitzer nominated newspaper journalists at the Miami Herald. They were hoping to use fiction to highlight some of the problems that blighted Miami. However, they probably failed to inspire anyone to change as the story was far too linear with absolutely no sense of fun. When the action takes place it is well written and is helped by the characters being well rounded. However, overall the experience is average at best and Hiaasen was wise to drop Montalbano as a writing partner. It seems to me that the two of them negated each others talents and by working together actually ended up writing a very run of the mill tale. I would not recommend this to many people as it feels very dated, but for Hiaasen fans it is an interesting curio.
Author: Karl Hiaasen and William Montalbano
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