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A serial killer with a smile

Nuclear Jellyfish
Nuclear Jellyfish
By Tim Dorsey

William Morrow: 2009

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This review first appeared in Turbula in May 2009.

A Tim Dorsey novel isn't something you can discuss the way you would other books. His stories are so different from anything else out there that reading Dorsey for the first time is a seriously disorienting experience.

The weirdness comes down to the fact that Dorsey's recurrent protagonist, Serge Storms, is a serial killer. And not just any serial killer, but a serial killer with an aesthetic that demands he kill each victim by a new and original method – most of which are cruel, all of them fairly disgusting.

Despite this rather unsavory basis for Dorsey's books, though, Serge is a good guy – you find yourself cheering for him. And Dorsey's novels aren't noir thrillers, but laugh-out-loud comedic romps.

Serge, you see, only kills those who deserve it – wise guys and made men, drug dealers and rapists, child abusers and other thugs who really do have it coming.

So there's an element of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley to Serge Storms, in that both are killers whom we are meant to bond with. But Highsmith made us squirm when we identified with Ripley, who was most certainly not a nice character. Dorsey seems to be going more for titillation and shock value – the sort where you read a passage and think to yourself, "Oh my God, did he really write that?"

His 11th novel, "Nuclear Jellyfish," finds Serge trying to earn a meager living as an online travel blogger helping his readers find Florida's hidden and forgotten treasures – the Jacksonville bar where Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Gimme Two Steps" was born, or a hotel where Elvis once stayed. Serge has a serious love affair with Florida going on (and has through all his books); you can put Dorsey alongside Carl Hiaasen and Jimmy Buffett in the "Floridature" genre.

While blogging from dive bars and rooms-by-the-hour motels, Serge finds himself befriending a young man who is targeted by diamond thieves pulling a scam by recruiting anonymous couriers for gem merchants and then stealing from them. Soon the thieves find their ranks steadily diminished by Serge's perverse genius, while an old police nemesis tries to warn Serge that a mysterious killer is after him.

The pace is manic, the dialogue rat-a-tat-tat, and the locales as dripping with Floridian culture as a conch chowder or good Key lime pie.