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Review: Barry is very good at the 'Business'

By L.D. Meagher

"Tricky Business"
By Dave Barry
256 pages

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(CNN) -- Writing a good crime novel is hard enough. Writing a good crime novel that's funny, well, that's orders of magnitude more difficult. Master craftsmen like Donald E. Westlake and Carl Hiaasen pull it off, but few others even try.

Dave Barry is Pulitzer Prize-winning funny. So maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that he would try his hand at the comic crime genre. After all, he has spent years hanging out with Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. They write crime books. Why shouldn't he try it?

As it turns out, Barry is good at it. No, that's not quite right.

He's very good at it.

"Tricky Business," his second novel, is a caper-gone-awry tale worthy of Westlake, populated with a diverse (and perverse) cast of characters worthy of Hiaasen. It's filled with action, violence, sex, filthy language and, most of all, laughs.

The ship must go on

The Extravaganza of the Seas is a wallowing excuse for an ocean liner. But it serves its purpose. It's a floating casino, taking gamblers from southern Florida just far enough out to sea to escape legal scrutiny, then taking the gamblers for every penny they've got. It's a cash cow.

But that isn't good enough for Lou Tarant, a bullet-headed mobster. He has other uses for the ship -- drug smuggling and money laundering, to name but two. And he has set up a big score. Never mind that there's a tropical storm drawing a bead on Miami. The ship must go on.

A lot of people get caught up in the scheme. Most of them know nothing about it until they hear gunshots. Others are knee-deep in it, but remain clueless about what's really going on.

Barry's characters are wonderfully ditsy. Arnie and Phil are 80-something refugees from a retirement home. Bobby Kemp is a self-made businessman who owes his success to a complete lack of scruples. Johnnie and the Contusions is the house band on the ship -- four guys who've been playing (and smoking dope) together since high school.

Achingly funny

Wally, the guitarist, is typical of them -- 29, living at home, adrift in life and hapless in love. Take the time he approached the cocktail waitress who had caught his eye.

"He'd tried to strike up a conversation with her," Barry writes, "which consisted of him saying' 'Hi, I'm Wally,' and her saying, 'I'm Fay', then him saying, 'I'm in the band,' and her saying, 'huh,' not sounding impressed, then an awkward pause, then him saying, 'So, you work on the ship,' and her saying, 'No I just enjoy wearing this stupid cocktail waitress dress with the mesh stockings and the uncomfortable shoes,' and then him trying to think of a clever comeback but not coming up with anything, just standing there grinning like a moron, and then her saying, "I gotta go.'"

Fay and Wally turn out to be the most normal people aboard the ship. Before it's all over, they're mixing it up with a maniacal charter boat operator, heavily armed thugs, a statuesque and flatulent croupier and a guy dressed like a conch.

Yes, a conch.

"Tricky Business" is a blisteringly fast, achingly funny novel. The author deftly weaves together the quirky characters and the convoluted plot with a sharp eye for the absurd detail.

Move over, Westlake. Look out, Hiaasen. There's a new kid on the comic crime beat and his name is Dave Barry.

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