Powder Burn is another of Hiaasen’s early books. It’s steeped in the cocaine culture of the 1980s, like the show Miami Vice. There’s a little more fun and intrigue here, but no real surprises.
Chris Meadows is an up-and-coming architect with no real ties to the drug trade. That is, until he witnesses a friend and her daughter brutally killed during a violent fight between rival drug gangs. Left alive, he’s soon targeted by the gang as a witness.
The gangs, meanwhile, are at a crossroads. The Colombians and Cubans have been fighting it out for territory. However, there is a plan in place by the head of the Cuban faction to partner with the Colombians and corner the market as well as put an end to most of the violence. Chris will not go quietly, though, and with some help from his friends, and a Cuban-American police detective, he sets out to not only deliver justice to the killers, but also to those at the top who are profiting from all of the violence.
If you grew up in the 1980s, there’s a lot in Powder Burn that is familiar. It seemed that cocaine was everywhere at the time. Chris is a decent guy who has tried to live his life in a good way, but the drug trade in Miami catches up with him. He’s never used cocaine before, but as he’s trying to set up the payoff for his plan, he must act the role and give in to using the drug to look the role of up-and-coming dealer from Atlanta. His reaction isn’t surprising, but it leads him to possibly make some bad choices, particularly when it comes to his love life.
Besides the former girlfriend who dies, Chris sleeps with a number of other women who are not his girlfriend. He does it and then comments that if she finds out she’ll kill both of them. Teresa is a pilot who works South American routes but also isn’t involved in the drug trade. However, her dedication to the small airline she owns means she can be gone for weeks at a time. This allows Chris to get into trouble all on his own. He doesn’t seem to have a conscience about what he does, just about her finding out. He could be bringing any number of sexually transmitted diseases back to her, but that thought never occurs to him.
While this is going on, Captain Octavio Nelson is the Cuban-American on the Narcotics Squad for the Miami Police Department. He isn’t corrupt, really, but he has a brother who is the cross he must bear. At times, his actions to help his brother might seem to be corrupt. Indeed, he thinks that he shouldn’t do the “favors” his brother asks of him, but then does them anyway. These don’t directly involve the drug trade, but could be hard to explain. His straight-laced partner seems intent on rooting out corruption, but is there really any around Octavio? That’s one of the mysteries of the novel. I really wasn’t sure for a lot of the book which side he was really on.
I enjoyed reading Powder Burn. It wasn’t filled with quirky characters Hiaasen would become known for, but it was an enjoyable bit of crime fiction. This was a day and age where people didn’t carry cell phones all the time, nor have computers with information at the touch of a button. Everything that both Chris Meadows and Captain Nelson go through is physical work, both to locate the people they are looking for and to get information. It’s a good crime drama of an era that is now a part of history.