Carl Hiaasen, bad writing, and the abduction of female characters

Grr! This annoyed me so much that I nearly got myself a LiveJournal account just so I could vent over at Canon Rants! And it’s all the fault of novelist Carl Hiaasen – or perhaps of Cory Doctorow, whose book review in Boing Boing enticed me to go read Star Island, Hiaasen’s most recent comic/absurdist Floridian crime caper.

The fact that I had previously liked a few of these books (especially the brilliant Basket Case) didn’t hurt, I have to admit. But this time, something threw me right out of the book.

Let me explain. But first, beware that spoilers lie ahead. If it bothers you, please don’t click on!

Still there? OK, so be it.

The thing is, Hiaasen writes thrillers, and one of his tricks is having a likable character abducted or taken hostage by some whacko. For some reason (or for too obvious reasons, I’m afraid), the abductee is often female, and has to be rescued by – wait for it! a male character.

And Star Island is no exception.

Which is annoying in itself. The damsel-in-distress plot is an old cliché. At least, if the execution of said standard trope was well-done, I could forgive the author. But no! From the moment the woman is taken hostage, she seems to lose completely the brains and moral resources with which she had been gifted in the previous chapters. She turns into a standard helpless heroine.

Worse, at one point, her abductor leaves her alone in a car for a few minutes, while forgetting to take his gun with him, and what does she do? She just stays there, gun in hand, thinking about a former boyfriend who was a cop, and doesn’t even try something! Then the bad guy comes back and picks the gun from her hand like a candy bar from a kid.

And the rationale? Simply awful. Apparently, she could have tried to escape, or attract the attention of someone, but she was really curious and wanted to see how things turned out


Even in the weird Hiaasen universe, that’s just too much to swallow. If the author needed his character in jeopardy, couldn’t he at least give her better motivation to act as she did? I don’t know, maybe she’s doesn’t know a thing about guns and forgets the security is on? (No, as the bit about the cop boyfriend suggests.) Or she’s phobic of violence? (Nope, she picks the gun up without problem.) Or is she just too tired? Or the bad guy gave her sleeping pills? (This comes later. Talk about bad timing…) Or maybe he’s too clever and never gives her any opportunity to escape? (Ha! Not him, he’s as stupid and clumsy as they come. But it doesn’t help our heroine. She can only dial the phone number of a – male – friend and wait for the rescue to come.)

And the abductor is no better, because (as it turns out) he has no motivation for keeping her with him. At first, he mistook her for someone else more valuable, but when he discovers his mistake, he tries to go on as if he had a bargaining chip, as if it wasn’t obvious that the people he wants to blackmail don’t give a hoot about the victim. In fact, for them, she would be better dead, unable to spread their dirty secrets.

Once again, the author could have written around it. The most obvious motivation for the bad guy would have been to threaten to expose those secrets and to use the girl just for that. It doesn’t even cross his mind. Or hers.

Sorry, Mr. Hiaasen, that’s just bad characterization. And lazy writing. The effect on me, the reader: a brutal stop of the willing suspension of disbelief.

The thing I don’t understand, however, is that the editor let this mix of casual sexism and idiot plot (note: that’s a technical term, meaning a plot that can only go along if every protagonist is an idiot) go unchecked. Maybe he or she had a deadline, I don’t know. But when a little effort would have been enough to transform a  cliché‘d, annoying plot, into a clever and thrilling one…

Argh. Methinks both author and editor banked on the author’s established reputation. And hoped for the loyal fan-base to stay loyal, no matter what. (As Cory’s gushing review showed, it can work.)

And this, boys and girls, is how bestsellers behave if you let them do so…

Une réponse à “Carl Hiaasen, bad writing, and the abduction of female characters

  1. Damsel-in-distress or not, I couldn’t possibly buy a book that exhibits such a première de couverture!

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