Few writers understand the violence lurking in the American psyche better than Carl Hiaasen. For more than four decades, the 67-year-old has been vividly chronicling crime and corruption in his native Florida, first as a reporter and columnist for the Miami Herald and then in a string of savagely hilarious crime novels. Still, nothing could have prepared him for the devastating events of 28 June 2018 when Jarrod Ramos, a lone gunman with a grudge against Maryland newspaper The Capital, entered its newsroom in Annapolis carrying a pump-action shotgun and killed five people, injuring two more. Among those left dead by the largest killing of journalists in US history was the paper’s assistant editor, Rob Hiaasen – Carl’s younger brother.
With Ramos still awaiting trial, Hiaasen began the slow process of returning to writing while carrying a grief that threatened to overwhelm him. “It took a long time after Rob was killed to start up again, I’ll tell you that,” says Hiaasen, speaking from his home in Vero Beach, 140 miles up the coast from Miami. “You have to cauterise your feelings to sit down and write something funny when, believe me, nothing about my life was funny.”
The resulting novel, Squeeze Me, is dedicated to Rob’s memory. It’s also very funny indeed. Hiaasen says he felt he owed it to his brother to keep going. “He had the best sense of humour of our whole family, and he would have been pissed off if he thought that I stopped writing those kind of books just because of what happened,” he says. “In this country, sadly, the community of people who have lost family members to mass shootings or street violence is absurdly huge. It’s like a tidal wave that never stops breaking through your family.”
In spite of this tragic background, Squeeze Me is vintage Hiaasen. Since making his debut with 1986’s Tourist Season, his novels have frequently pitted the natural world and those who defend it against grotesque, avaricious villains. In Squeeze Me, both sides are drawn straight from our stranger-than-fiction reality. In one corner, the fugitive Burmese pythons that have made their home in the Everglades since the early Nineties. In the other, America’s grotesque and avaricious president.