Skin Tight (novel)

Skin Tight is a novel by Carl Hiaasen. It focuses on a former detective for the Florida State Attorney's office, who becomes the target of a murder plot by a corrupt, and egregiously incompetent, plastic surgeon.

Skin Tight
First edition
Author Carl Hiaasen
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Putnam
Publication date
September 1989
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 319 pp
ISBN 978-0-399-13489-0
OCLC 19511900
813/.54 20
LC Class PS3558.I217 S57 1989
Preceded by Double Whammy
Followed by Native Tongue

Plot summary

Dr. Rudy Graveline, M.D., the director of the prestigious "Whispering Palms" Surgery Center in Bal Harbour, Florida, is in fact a complete fraud. Apart from the fact that he has never been trained or certified in cosmetic surgery, he is a dangerously clumsy and inept surgeon. He has built his reputation through social connections and by taking credit for the work of his more-competent associates. On the rare occasions when Graveline himself performs surgery, the results are inevitably disastrous. He has weathered numerous malpractice complaints and investigations by the state, through bribery and intimidation.

However, there is at least one mistake in Rudy's past that no amount of money or prestige could fix, were it ever to come to light: the accidental killing of a college coed named Victoria Barletta, during a botched nose job. So, when Rudy's former surgical nurse, Maggie Gonzalez, tells Rudy that Mick Stranahan, a retired investigator for the Florida State Attorney's office, is looking into Victoria's disappearance again, Rudy decides to have Stranahan killed.

In reality, Maggie is the whistleblower. After promising to repeat the true story on live television, for the sensationalist talk show "In Your Face!", Maggie has pointed to Stranahan to misdirect Rudy.

Stranahan is eating breakfast on his house in Stiltsville, in Biscayne Bay, when a hit man from the mob appears at his front door with a gun. Mick ambushes the man, impaling him through the chest with the sword of a stuffed marlin head, then pushes the body out to sea and decides to find out who wants him dead. He meets the obnoxious host of "In Your Face!", Reynaldo Flemm, and his producer, Christina Marks, who have come to Miami looking for Maggie after she left New York City without warning. Mick has no time for Reynaldo, but finds himself attracted to Christina (and vice versa).

After the mob hitman's failure, Graveline has tried going with "local talent": a disfigured felon nicknamed "Chemo" who agrees to kill Stranahan in exchange for a discount on his dermabrasion treatments.

Chemo locates Stranahan the same way that Christina did: through his vengeful ex-wife, Chloe. When Chemo says he's out to "get" Stranahan, she shows him the way to the stilt house, and eagerly comes along to watch. But when she realizes that Chemo means to kill Stranahan, not just scare him, she objects, since she is still receiving alimony. They begin to argue, and she makes the mistake of insulting his face, to which he responds by drowning her in the Bay. Fortunately for Mick, Chloe's directions were wrong, and Chemo burns down an abandoned stilt house instead of Mick's.

The next day, homicide detective Al Garcia and Marine Patrol Officer Luis Cordova visit Mick on his stilt house, and inform him that Chloe's body has been found, and he's the prime suspect in her murder. When Stranahan tells them that someone is trying to kill him, they advise him to lie low. Instead of doing so, Mick visits Dr. Graveline outside his clinic, advises him in the strongest terms to abandon his plans to murder Mick, and emphasizes his point by blowing up the doctor's Jaguar.

Mick returns to his stilt house, where Christina visits him. She says that she interviewed Mick's old partner, Timmy Gavigan, at the hospital. Before Timmy died, he told her that he'd remembered a detail from the Barletta case: Graveline's brother, George, is a tree trimmer by profession. She isn't sure what that means, but Stranahan is: most trimmers use a wood chipper, an ideal device for disposing of a body in a hurry.

Then Chemo appears on the house with a submachine gun, having been told by Graveline that Mick is still alive. In the ensuing shootout, Mick is wounded in the shoulder, and Chemo dives off the house to avoid a shotgun blast. Swimming around the ocean, his hand is bitten off by a strike from a Great Barracuda. Making his way back to Graveline, he opts to attach a portable weed whacker to the stump of his arm instead of a conventional prosthesis.

Graveline gives Chemo another job: to go to New York City and eliminate Maggie Gonzalez. But when Chemo finds her in New York, she mentions being a nurse by training, and tells him the truth about Rudy's incompetence. Mortified that he has entrusted his face to such a dangerous hack, Chemo decides to form a partnership with Maggie, to blackmail Rudy with the knowledge about Victoria Barletta's death. Maggie has created a videotaped confession for security, but Stranahan and Christina have gotten hold of a copy.

Returning to Miami, Stranahan delivers the video to Al Garcia, before surviving another murder attempt: this time, a pair of corrupt Miami detectives (former cronies of a corrupt judge that Stranahan killed in self-defense), are hired by one of Rudy's buddies, a corrupt county commissioner, to kill Stranahan. Yet again, Stranahan outfoxes them and lures them into a fatal booby trap.

Stranahan also turns up the heat on Graveline by recruiting his brother-in-law, a shyster personal injury lawyer named Kipper Garth, to sue Graveline for malpractice, yet again. He then confronts George Graveline, the tree trimmer, who tries to kill Stranahan rather than talk, and is shot dead by Al Garcia.

Chemo and Maggie kidnap Christina, holding her hostage in exchange for Mick's copy of the videotape.

Meanwhile, Reynaldo Flemm, jealous of Christina's growing attraction to Mick, comes up with his own plan to break the Barletta case: he schedules a nose job and abdominoplasty with Rudy, planning to conduct an ambush interview once the nose job is done. His "brilliant" plan quickly goes awry when Rudy announces that he plans to do the abdominoplasty first, and puts Reynaldo under general anesthesia. When Reynaldo's cameraman bursts into the operating room to start the interview, Rudy panics and accidentally stabs the unconscious Reynaldo through the heart with a liposuction cannula.

Fleeing the clinic with Reynaldo's body, Rudy calls George, only to be told that he is dead. Now realizing that he has no option left except to flee the country, Rudy returns home, only to find he can't go: his girlfriend, Hollywood actress Heather Chappell, has been kidnapped by Stranahan. Realizing they'll never get paid until Stranahan is no longer a threat to Rudy, Chemo and Maggie join Rudy to confront Stranahan at the stilt house, taking Christina with them.

During the confrontation, Stranahan knocks out Chemo and Rudy, and sends Christina, Maggie and Heather back to the mainland. Stranahan then attempts to "jog" Rudy's memory of Victoria Barletta's death by "recreating" the circumstances of the botched nose job, with Rudy as the "patient." Scared, Rudy confesses: he killed Vicki (purely by accident), then got George to get rid of the body. He also confesses to hiring Chemo to kill Stranahan; Chemo is so alarmed (or embarrassed) at Stranahan learning that Chemo agreed to kill him in exchange for a discount on surgery, that he kills Graveline. Stranahan ties Chemo up, calls the police, and swims away. Garcia arrives, and Chemo is arrested.

Various plot threads are resolved by the epilogue:

  • Chemo is convicted of murdering Chloe Stranahan, and Rudy Graveline, and sentenced to 17 years in prison;
  • Maggie Gonzalez is convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and sentenced to community service, and is later killed in a riot at the Dade County Stockade;
  • Reynaldo Flemm's body is sent, with a phony name attached, to a medical school on Guadeloupe, to serve as a clinical teaching aid.
  • Victoria Barletta's parents receive a suitcase full of money, supposedly a gift from Rudy's estate;
  • "In Your Face!" is canceled after Flemm's mysterious disappearance, and Christina takes a newspaper job in Miami Florida, and purchases a second-hand fishing boat.

Connections with Hiaasen's other works

  • Al Garcia, who has appeared in Tourist Season and Double Whammy, makes his third appearance. Luis Cordova makes a joking reference to Garcia's "victory" in a bass fishing tournament in the latter novel.
  • A passing reference is made to Mick Stranahan in Stormy Weather, when Clinton Tyree, aka "Skink," camps on Mick's old stilt house, which has been abandoned since the former occupant "married a beautiful twelve-string guitarist and moved to the island of Exuma."
  • Mick Stranahan, Luis Cordova, and Kipper Garth all re-appear in Hiaasen's 2004 novel, Skinny Dip. Christina Marks does not appear, as Mick tells the female protagonist of that novel that she married, and later divorced, him.
  • Chemo reappears in Hiaasen's 2010 novel, Star Island.
  • Hiaasen's novels often feature a recurring joke that radiology is a "soft" medical discipline, and those that practice it are not "real" doctors; Rudy not only finished dead last in his medical school class, but he "barely squeaked through a residency in radiology" before deciding to specialize in cosmetic surgery "for the simple reason that it was exceedingly lucrative."

Allusions to actual history, geography, or persons

  • In his foreword, Hiaasen gives thanks to a plastic surgeon, who supplied him with technical details. At the time this novel was written, Hiaasen was still married to his first wife, Connie, who was employed as a surgical nurse.
  • Reynaldo Flemm is an obvious parody of Geraldo Rivera.
  • There are several gruesome parallels between Rudy Graveline and Reinaldo Silvestre, a fake plastic surgeon operating in Miami Beach who was exposed in 1999; like Graveline, Silvestre had no qualifications as a cosmetic surgeon (or any medical qualifications at all), yet managed to convince many patients of his skills through social interaction; despite repeated grisly mistakes, his victims were often too embarrassed to admit the cause of their disfiguring injuries, while new patients - swept up by the culture of Miami Beach - never bothered to investigate Silvestre's qualifications or review any of the malpractice complaints against him.[1]
  • Two of the more bizarre methods of death depicted in the novel were used later on film or television:
    • In the movie Fargo, kidnapper Gaer Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) kills his partner (Steve Buscemi) and then chops up his body and feeds the pieces into a wood chipper;
    • In the episode "Sanguinarium" of The X-Files, a surgeon possessed by dark magic is manipulated into fatally stabbing a patient with a cannula during a liposuction procedure.


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