In Clownfish Blues by Tim Dorsey, A (Serge A.) Storm is brewing for a cabal of bad guys gaming the Florida state lottery in this insanely funny novel from the maestro of mayhem (available January 24, 2017).
The Florida State Lottery—like all lotteries—is a game of chance. Anyone can win; all you have to do is buy a ticket. But actually winning is an entirely different thing. Most people buy a ticket and hope for the best, keeping their fingers crossed and willing their numbers to appear. Others know the chances of winning are less than finding yourself handcuffed to a ghost or guessing a complete stranger’s phone number, yet they play nonetheless. However, for gangsters, robbers, cheats, and fly-by-nights, a more successful—if illegal—method might be employed.
In Clownfish Blues, a group of thieves arrange a system of tilting the odds using a huge wad of cash, and I mean huge. Main characters Storms and Coleman catch wind of the plan and take more than a passing interest—they want in on the action, too. Big time.
The two are filming remakes of the television show Route 66 simply because they want to and because they can. It matters little to not at all that the actual Route 66 doesn’t pass through Florida. Some of the original episodes were shot there, and that is good enough for them. That and a slice of the lottery action. Unsurprisingly, they are not the only ones.
The caper draws out more underbelly and lowlifes than you can pluck off the bottom of a boat with a barnacle scraper. Mr. Dorsey sets the pace on page one and keeps it up until the last word on the final page. It is breathtaking and very cleverly written. Despite the litany of characters, you won’t need to take notes to remember them all—each one imprints themselves on your subconscious like a thousand-dollar tip on a ten-dollar tab in an ill-lit beachside bar. The narrative rocks and the story rolls.
The sergeant gave the signal. “Go! Go! Go!”
Tactical officers in black gear stormed towards the house.
Serge yelled out of a window: “Hostage coming out!”
“Stand down!” yelled the sergeant.
Maria stomped out of the doorway and across the lawn. A SWAT member darted forward and grabbed her arm to pull her to safety, but she just jerked away.
“Don’t touch me!”
There was a commotion in the street as other officers attempted to detain her for debriefing.
“You men are all alike!”
An emboldened Rog struck his head through a crack in the door.
“And don’t come back, ****!”
“What!” Serge screamed and yanked him back inside.
“Rog, a Pottery Barn can test even the strongest man’s limits, which is why you will always see them crying in the parking lot. But I cannot abide this level of misogyny…”
The book never misses a beat, and the characters meander around the line of ethics—never completely good but never truly bad—just like real people do. This moral middle ground makes the characters that much more believable, regardless of whether they are planning robberies, holding people hostage, or waving a gun in the face of someone who deserves better.
The main character in this book is really the Sunshine State itself, pushing and jostling for attention like a large man in a Hawaiian shirt. You think, and secretly hope, the buttons are going to pop, but you don’t want to be standing too close when they do.
Another hot and bustling day along U.S. 1 in Miami. Sidewalks full of businesspeople on lunch and aimless people on parole. Broken headlight glass in the street, and the rest of the fender bender at the curb. An old man worked the intersections with a sign: WHY LIE? I WANT TO BUY A BEER. A tent sale with balloons, a bicycle with dangling iguanas, a hooker past her sell by date.
At every corner, waiting customers spilled out of convenience stores. Above, perpetually updating billboards where the workers might as well just camp out.
A silver Corvette sat at a red light. Coleman popped a Pabst and stared.
“What’s the deal with all those people in line? Did a Stones concert go on sale?”
The closing words of the book are “Let’s go buy a speedboat!” I was delighted to see realism even in the final phrase. Many luxury yachts have a basic price of a million a meter. Too often, lottery winners who have cashed their checks discover they still don’t have enough … a speedboat is far more accurate.
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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.