March 03, 1997 12:00 PM

by Carl Hiaasen et al

Anyone who contends that truth is stranger than fiction has clearly not read this madcap crime farce. Created on the installment plan by 13 top Florida talents ranging from Dave Barry to Elmore Leonard, who each contributed one chapter (the project originally ran in serial form in the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine), the book bursts with all the Day-Glo color, mutant characters and chemically fueled lunacy of a Saturday night in South Beach. Murders, vehicular explosions, severed heads uncannily resembling a certain stogie-smoking dictator—and even one obese aquatic mammal—are tossed into the potboiler as it ricochets in spectacularly convoluted fashion around the story of some Castro assassination attempts.

Manatee’s pass-the-baton writing scheme frequently makes for delicious mayhem. Participants get to drop the dizziest plot surprises (see novelist Paul Levine’s chapter, in which his linebacker-turned-lawyer Jake Lassiter enters the game) without any obligation to make sense of them. But in later innings, players including Carl Hiaasen seem a little handicapped by all the curveballs.

Still, several of the fiction-meisters more than rise to the challenge. From the rat-a-tat opening riffs of his episode, it’s impossible to mistake the riveting voice of Elmore Leonard. And the odd couple he proceeds to introduce, who bicker about rap music while scouring a grisly crime scene, definitely rate a longer visit.

On balance, Manatee is a mystery fan’s version of an all-star game. It doesn’t always make for gripping viewing—but there’s a special thrill in seeing so many of your favorites on the same field. (Putnam, $22.95)

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