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HIAASEN GETS INTO THE SWIM OF SWEET SPOUSAL REVENGE

If Carl Hiaasen has proved nothing else while reinventing the screwball comedy during his 10-novel career, it's that villains matter.

Sure, a protagonist you can identify with helps readers invest emotionally. But show them a rotten, dirty, no-good piece of human vomitus on his way to getting away with a monstrous act of perfidy, and readers will cheer out loud for the smiting of the wicked.

Now, Hiaasen has had some uneven spots in his output. If you missed "Lucky You," count yourself -- you know. Yet even at his lamest, Hiaasen has a nose for outrage.

If you bring home "Skinny Dip," and someone you live with absconds with it, you might be able to locate them by the cheering. Chaz Perrone is that loathsome. But it's an invigorating, wholesome brand of loathsome, not a nightmarish flavor like Hannibal Lecter.

Everybody knows a jerk a bit like Chaz Perrone. He's got a job he's not actually qualified for, but since he puts more effort into conniving than labor, he's still employed. He treats his wife like an accessory that he purchased at a pornographic bookstore. The people he's most honest with are the guys he's trying to impress.

Still, what kind of a guy feeds his wife wine and throws her off a cruise ship while they're celebrating their second anniversary? The kind of guy who works for a program to restore the Everglades, then sells out to polluters, that's who. A guy who's so witless that when his wife walks in on him fiddling the test result spreadsheet, he panics and decides she has to go.

But Joey Perrone was the co-captain of her college swim team, and she's strong enough to stay afloat until she finds an unusual raft to cling to. Then the real life preserver appears, in the form of Mick Stranahan. The former cop was last seen in Hiaasen's "Skin Tight," where he killed a Mafia hit man in self defense -- with a stuffed marlin head.

Stranahan is living alone on an island off the Florida coast, a man for whom a full day's work is fishing off his dock, then frying his catch. But Joey has other ideas. She doesn't want to call the cops on Chaz, who's playing the grieving husband to the police. She wants revenge.

After Chaz gets spooked by strange manifestations of his wife's aura, he calls his partner in crime for help. Red Hammernut's factory farms are spilling a huge amount of banned chemicals into the newly protected Everglades, and Hammernut figured it was cheaper to buy one biologist than a whole pollution control system.

Hammernut gets a Cro-Magnon he calls Tool to protect his investment in Perrone. Tool's a walking argument against evolution, addicted to the painkiller patches he pulls off terminal nursing home patients and fond of collecting the crosses from car crash memorials.

A straight-faced detective named Karl Rolvaag, who just wants to figure out the case so he can move back to Minnesota with a clean slate, won't leave Chaz alone. The problem with his case is that he can't see any motive Chaz had for killing his wife. Joey had inherited millions, but he's signed a prenuptial agreement, and her will left her fortune to a wildlife foundation.

Just as the investigation runs out of steam, Rolvaag receives a document. It's a brand-new will and testament of Joey Perrone, dated two weeks before her disappearance. Leaving her $13 million fortune to her beloved husband, Chaz.

The story picks up momentum after that point, and careens to its finish like an out-of-control Disney World ride. An old friend of Hiaasen fans even makes a cameo appearance, shower cap and all.

Hiaasen could have done more with his central issue, the corruption of the Everglades rescue effort. He explains coherently what's at stake in restoring the wetland that's at the heart of Florida's fresh water and wildlife habitats, but the scam involving Perrone is only peripheral to its success.

Still, the last chapters are vintage Force Five Hiaasen, as the deserving have their just desserts served on them with Biblical fury. Even if it only exists in novels, seeing justice done is hard to beat for entertainment.

Skinny Dip

By Carl Hiaasen

Knopf, 354 pages, $25

Andrew Z. Galarneau is a News reporter and frequent reviewer of crime fiction.