They don’t make motels quite like this anymore

It’s atmospheric. It’s evocative. It’s “Hammerhead Ranch Motel” and it’s one of the best paperbacks to explode from the humid depths of the Sunshine State since the last good hurricane.

Violent, quirky and sometimes downright strange, Tim Dorsey’s “Hammerhead Ranch Motel” (2001, HarperTorch, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 374 pages) is packed with Floridian action that’s guaranteed to persuade would-be tourists that they’d be wise to plan their next vacation in someplace like Boise.

This is the story of a seedy motel on the outskirts of a wealthy Florida retirement community called Beverly Shores whose diminutive mayor has recently been arrested for attempted murder with a lawn dart.

But the mayor’s homicidal indiscretion is just one small part of a multifaceted tale that spans the state of Florida and involves everybody from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to Paul the passive-aggressive private eye.

(Paul, it should be noted, is searching for a guy named Aristotle “Art” Tweed, an otherwise unremarkable fellow who disappeared after a teenage prankster at a Montgomery, Ala., hospital falsely informed him that he had four weeks to live due to a pancreatic tumor, but I digress…)

At the heart of this tale – once you get past the airborne hurricane hunters, cocaine cowboys, Toto the Weather Dog and the Hammerhead Ranch Motel itself – is a genial homicidal maniac named Serge A. Storms who’s in relentless pursuit of $5 million in laundered drug cartel-insurance fraud money hidden in the trunk of an old Chrysler New Yorker.

Serge in not your average serial killer. When he’s on the correct medication, he can be positively likable and a virtual fountain of knowledge about the history of Florida. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always take his medication and then he kills people who get between him and the cash.

Serge, who once described Florida as “a twenty-four-hour, dead-bolted, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck, free-continental breakfast death wish-vacation of a lifetime, not from concentrate” kind of place, is always about two corpses away from getting his hands on the loot.

As the death toll mounts, it becomes apparent that our psychiatrically-challenged soldier of fortune is following the money straight to the aforementioned Hammerhead Ranch Motel, along with about half the surviving population of Florida.

The motel, symbolized by the stuffed head of a hammerhead shark with a lasso around it, is also a twenty-four-hour, dead-bolted, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck kind of place. Run by a former cocaine dealer known as Zargoza whose real name is Henry Fiddlebottom, it’s populated by a motley assortment of undercover cops, federal agents, auto thieves, con artists and a Balkan war criminal.

Then there’s Room Eight, where “an unemployed auto mechanic named Leo barricaded himself and refused to come out, although he had done nothing wrong and nobody was looking for him.”

And now Serge A. Storms is on his way – a sure-fire formula for supermarket paperback success if ever there was one…

Don’t delay, amigos – get “Hammerhead Ranch Motel” before it gets you.

Originally published July 8, 2001

Frozen crocodiles, cash and cocaine

What is it about Florida that turns the average newspaperman into a superhero of the supermarket paperback aisle?

One minute a guy’s covering the zoning beat in East Palatka and the next minute he’s got four million loyal readers who can’t wait for his next paperback tale of cocaine cowboys, misunderstood manatees and terrified tourists who probably should have vacationed in Ohio.

Authors Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry and Christopher Moore were all Florida news dogs before they turned their talents to carefully chronicling the worst and weirdest of humankind in book form.

The newest kid on the block is longtime Tampa Tribune reporter and editor Tim Dorsey, whose novel “Florida Road Kill” should earn him a coveted spot in the supermarket paperback hall of fame.

“Florida Road Kill” (2000, Harpertorch, New York, N.Y., $6.99, 370 Pages) has everything that discriminating supermarket paperback readers have come to expect from Florida crime novels: drug dealers, dead guys, frozen crocodiles, crooked politicians and lots of people with automatic weapons.

Dorsey gets right down to business, deftly weaving a half-dozen plots and subplots into a madcap Floridian fandango of guns, greed, chainsaws and death. There are four people and a tortoise murdered in the first 20 pages alone.

The tale revolves (rather loosely) around two wacky felons, Serge and Coleman, their cocaine-snorting, lap-dancing sidekick, Sharon, and an alcoholic, seven-fingered orthodontist with a suitcase containing roughly $5 million. They’re all about to collide with two high school buddies who have been not catching fish together for 20 years and the world’s smallest cocaine cartel.

(You, er, followed all that, right? Because now it begins to get a little complicated…)

The aforementioned orthodontist, one George Veale III, wasn’t always seven-fingered. He once had ten fingers and used them for high-priced dentistry and to occasionally fire a black powder cannon inside his living room during moments of celebratory excess.

The cannon, it should be noted, didn’t claim Veale’s missing digits. They were severed after he foolishly told Serge and Coleman that his hands were insured for $5 million.

The two wily criminals promptly entered into a one-sided conspiracy with Veale to defraud his insurance company by removing three of the befuddled orthodontist’s fingers with a chainsaw during a painstakingly planned landscaping accident.

Although Veale doesn’t exactly remember joining forces with Serge and Coleman for the insurance rip-off, he graciously accepts the $5 million and promptly flees his two non-partners.

This scenario is complicated by the fact that the insurance company isn’t on very secure financial footing and the money paid out for Veale’s claim actually belongs to the world’s 68th largest cocaine cartel.

The insurance company wants its money back. The drug dealers want their money back. And, yes, Serge and Coleman still want a piece of the action.

Toss in a Barbie doll-eating serial killer, Malley the Dancing Malathion Bear and an unexpected stampede of Hemingway look-alikes and you’ve got one helluva supermarket paperback, amigos..

Originally published August 13, 2000

Yeah, like this is going to sell a bunch of papers

The National Enquirer, apparently striving for mainstream reader acceptance after waning popularity in the nation’s supermarket check-out lines, is reaching out to a broader market with a more conservative approach to the news.

According to a recent issue of Editor & Publisher magazine, the Enquirer and its sister publication, the Star, are in the midst of a $50 million makeover to give the weekly tabloids more credibility with the American public.

They’ve even gone so far as to emblazon their delivery trucks with huge panels proclaiming “NO ELVIS. NO ALIENS. NO UFOS” above a tastefully understated Enquirer logo.

I have only one question:

Have these guys jettisoned their few remaining scraps of sanity?

Think about it – here’s an established publication that’s made its reputation with screaming headlines and in-depth investigations into such mysteries as Elvis Presley’s final, desperate battle with nail fungus. Now the Enquirer has abruptly turned around and is telling its hardcore readers that it’s going to be dumping all the good stuff.

What’s left – exciting excerpts from the Congressional Record? Ann Landers? The annual rainfall in Wenatchee?

If that old banner headline doesn’t read something like “Naked Fergie in Drunken Gun Battle with Cocaine Kingpins,” who’s going to bother with the new Enquirer?

Not I.

When I purchase a supermarket tabloid, I’m looking for the real news that the New York Times and San Francisco Examiner are afraid to print.

If the Enquirer starts dishing out bland helpings of journalistic oatmeal, those of us who want the truth about Elvis, space aliens and UFOs are simply going to look elsewhere – and it won’t be a real long trip, amigos.

Fortunately for discriminating readers everywhere, the Weekly World News is still out there walking point in a world populated by extraterrestrials, werewolves and Bigfoot.

The Enquirer didn’t warn America when the potentially ravenous Bat Child escaped from captivity. No, only the Weekly World News was willing to step out on the edge and let us know about the pointy-earred menace that was roaming our streets.

Just last week, the News scored a series of technical knockouts with thoroughly researched stories that not only predicted the return of Jesus Christ this fall, but advised readers what to say if they bump into him (“If you are lucky enough to meet Jesus in person, you want to make the best impression possible…”).

Other timely advice revealed how readers could direct their out-of-body travels to a specific location and how to use a startling new breed of dog as a household mop (“They’re great on tile and linoleum floors…”).

Also mentioned was the case of the killer trombone slide, tales of spontaneous human combustion and the Mexican border patrol’s new drug-sniffing iguanas.

Drug-sniffing iguanas?

With competition like that, I’d give the new National Enquirer about six more months before the editors there are back pounding the pavement in search of the space aliens who abducted Elvis..

Originally published July 16, 2000

Sorry, this is not a really safe trend…

There’s a rather alarming concept sweeping the Northern California real estate market these days and it’s not an unexpected proliferation of musical lawn dwarf landscaping.

It seems as if everywhere you look, some enterprising builder, developer or realtor is cheerfully trumpeting the benefits of “Golf Course Living!”

Uh-huh. This is, like, supposed to be a selling point?

Call me a skeptic, but why would anybody other than a (shudder!) golfer actually want to live on or near a golf course?

Golf courses, as attractive as some of them may seem at first glance, are basically gigantic lawns dotted with the occasional brackish pond (they don’t even stock ’em with trout!) and a sand pit or two.

The latter are kind of fun if you’re one of those people who occasionally enjoys dressing up as a grizzled prospector and crawling across them on your belly croaking “Watah, waaaataaaah…” to the alarm to startled spectators, but otherwise they’re rather useless.

Worse, golf courses in general tend to attract a rather hardy form of suburban pest that has proven virtually ineradicable in recent years – the golfer.

And herein lies the average homebuyer’s dilemma: Is the cry “Golf Course Living!” a selling point or a warning?

After all, this is a place where high velocity projectiles are just another part of the environment.

Those hard little white orbs don’t always land on the green. In fact – considering the skills of the average S’lano County golfer – they’re liable to land with considerable force just about anywhere, including right in the middle of your first Ramos Fizz of the morning.

Then there are the golfers themselves – club-wielding maniacs in funny shoes who scurry hither and yon through the countryside vehemently cursing those inoffensive little white orbs.

Who exactly are these guys?

Not somebody you’d want to live next door to, that’s for sure, amigos. I checked it out.

Remember when everyone used to joke about wealthy, leisure-loving medical doctors spending an inordinate amount of time puttering about on the golf course?

Sorry – that was just another one of those silly urban myths that seem to surface from time to time.

I did some research. I drove out to VacaValley Hospital and nosed around for a couple of afternoons. The place was full of doctors performing all sorts of medically related tasks. Not one of them was wearing funny-looking shoes.

Next, I made my way over to the S’lano County Hall of Justice in Fairfield. Despite an exhaustive, 10-minute search, I couldn’t find a single organized crime kingpin – not so much as a third-string lieutenant for the Medelin cocaine cartel.

It doesn’t take a genius to put this one together. If all the doctors are over at the hospital and none of the region’s organized crime figures are in court, it’s pretty obvious how our well-heeled felons are spending their leisure time…