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