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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Up and Up’ Careens About Roaring Twenties South Florida Like the Cat’s Pajamas in a Nash Roadster

Posted by kinchendavid on July 17, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Hinton, WV  – In the 1928 Miami of Lee Irby’s “The Up and Up” (Doubleday, 320 pages, $19.95) you need a scorecard to tell the mugs from the flatties.
 
Using lingo of the era: “mugs” are crooks, while “flatties” are cops (from their uniform caps), history professor Irby follows up last year’s debut “7,000 Clams” with a sophomore genre-bending historical fiction/crime caper involving Frank Hearn, his beautiful fiancée Irene Howard and a gigantic cast of characters – real and fictional. Among the real ones are Joseph Kennedy and his mistress actress Gloria Swanson, tire magnate Harvey Firestone and a silent cameo from President (Silent Cal) Calvin Coolidge.
 
This is the South Florida of the bust of the frenetic real estate boom of the mid-1920s, which came to a grinding halt with the devastating hurricane of 1926. It’s the Miami of “Cocoanuts,” (1929) the first Marx Brothers film comedy, only with real murder and mayhem. Miami and environs are a contrast in wealth and poverty, with a nearly completed skyscraper Dade County Courthouse (“the tallest building south of Baltimore”) and subdivisions of underwater lots like the Sweetwater development on the Tamiami Trail where Frank Hearn and his partner Parker Anderson Jr. are peddling lots to gullible northerners.
 
Frank Hearn is a former bootlegger with a sixth-grade education, but the ruggedly handsome New Jersey native is bent on making his fortune in Florida real estate after only a few months in town. Frank and Anderson, the son of a former mayor of Miami, have a beautiful blonde secretary, Nina Randolph, who’s not what she appears to be.
 
Then again, few of the characters in this rollicking page-turner of a caper novel are. That’s what makes it a perfect take-it-to-the-beach read. This is the Florida of the grandparents of the characters of Carl Hiaasen, Dave Barry, Edna Buchanan and Elmore Leonard, among the many novelists who’ve mined the exotic South Florida scene.
 
The wheels come off Frank Hearn’s flivver (there’s a lot of Jazz Age lingo in this book) when he and Anderson go to a jai alai fronton to make some money off a fixed match. Thus begins a world of woe for both men – and their friends and families. Frank wants to make some quick money to pay off a debt to Irene’s father. Irene is on her way back from Europe to introduce Frank to her wealthy parents. One minute Hearn’s in jail, the next he’s escaping with a bunch of crazoids to a town in the Everglades.
 
From what I could tell – with one exception – Irby has done his historical research with pinpoint precision and the details are on the money. The exception: Nina Randolph, on the lam with extorted money, uses nylon stockings to tie up a woman who’s following her. Nylons went on sale for the first time May 15, 1940, more than 12 years after the events of “The Up and Up.” Nina would have really used cotton hose (I’m sure she wouldn’t have wasted expensive silk stockings) for the task.
 
One of the few good guys on the law enforcement side in Irby’s caper novel is an earnest federal agent from Tampa, Horace Dyer, assigned to Miami to investigate real estate fraud involving Hearn and Anderson. Dyer is eager to prove himself so he can get a job working for the young J. Edgar Hoover. When he meets the raven-tressed Irene, sparks fly on both sides. By the way, Irby refers to the Bureau of Investigation headed by Hoover as the “Federal” Bureau of Investigation. The “Federal” part wasn’t added until 1935.
 
Quibbles aside, this a book every crime caper fan – think Donald E. Westlake’s John Dortmunder novels or perhaps the best of the best, Ross Thomas (“The Seersucker Whipsaw,” “The Fools in Town Are On Our Side”) – will enjoy. It’s the cat’s meow, the bee’s knees. I was even casting the characters for a movie version – a sure sign I liked Irby’s second novel. Now, let’s see… Vince Vaughn would make a good Frank Hearn…no…maybe someone a little more like Vincent D’Onofrio of “Law & Order SVU.” Enough, already!
 
Publisher’s web site: http://www.doubleday.com.

(Originally published Jun 10, 2006)

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