Charles R. “Chaz” Perrone, Ph.D., is a young, handsome marine biologist whose expertise in his field is marginal, and whose interest in it is nonexistent. Since his adolescence, he has devoted his life solely to the lazy pursuit of money, sex, golf, and an otherwise undisturbed, pleasurable existence devoid of any intellectual ambitions, or the urge to explore and experience the great outdoors. His main source of personal pride seems to be his sexual stamina. Despite his marriage to Joey, a beautiful and rich woman, he frequently has affairs with other women.
Chaz’s insatiable greed drives him to collude with Samuel Johnson “Red” Hammernut, a crooked farm tycoon who owns large vegetable fields adjacent to the Everglades, which he relentlessly pollutes with fertilizer run-off. Officially employed by the state authorities to test swamp water for pollutants, Perrone is secretly also on Hammernut's payroll, forging the test results and allowing Hammernut to avoid having to cut back on his overuse of fertilizers, or spend large amounts of money on purification plants. Perrone's worst days at work are those when he actually has to leave his office and make field trips and wade in to the Everglades to take water samples.
One day Joey Perrone returns home unexpectedly while her husband is filling in the doctored figures on a chart. As she has never taken any interest in her husband's work, Joey has no idea what he is doing, but Chaz is so paranoid that he is seized by a sudden fear that she might report him. Eventually, Perrone sees no other way out of his imagined predicament than to kill his wife. He begins to meticulously plan the perfect murder.
For their second wedding anniversary he invites his wife on a cruise and one night, while they are out at sea, throws her overboard. Having been an excellent swimmer all her life, Joey survives, managing to turn her fall into a dive, and then swimming toward the Florida coast. As her strength gives out, she clings to a floating bale of marijuana for several hours, and is picked up early the next morning.
Her rescuer is Mick Stranahan, 53, a former investigator with the State Attorney who was forced into early retirement. Stranahan lives on a small island in Biscayne Bay off the Florida coast owned by a successful but aging Mexican novelist. Stranahan, who has been married six times, is now in the novelist's pay as a caretaker, leading a solitary life guarding the island and "mak[ing] up for all the years of foolish companionship." Having cut down his trips to the mainland to an absolute minimum, he has hardly any means of contact with the rest of the world except an unreliable mobile phone. His only companion is an inefficient Dobermann called Strom.
After a few days the search for Joey Perrone is called off, and she is presumed dead. Chaz pretends to be a grieving husband. As no witnesses come forward, the authorities accept his suggestion that Joey either had an accident — Chaz having testified that she had had quite a lot to drink that night — or committed suicide. Karl Rolvaag, the Broward County Sheriff’s detective investigating the disappearance, is suspicious of Chaz’s too-rehearsed grief and pat answers, but can find no motive supporting a suspicion of murder. Joey was rich, but Chaz wasn’t in her will; and if he wanted to dump her for another woman, divorce would have been quick and easy.
Joey is equally baffled, and begs Stranahan not to report that she is still alive. Since she has no idea yet why he tried to kill her, she doubts that she can convince the police that it wasn’t a drunken accident or attempted suicide. Instead, she wants to find out herself why he did it, and drive her husband to insanity by building on his vanity and paranoia. Stranahan agrees.
Joey starts by entering their house while Chaz is at work and leaving traces of herself — negligees, a photo of herself and Chaz (with her face cut out). Chaz is unsettled enough by these clues that he experiences impotence for the first time in his life, which leaves him greatly flustered. Joey happens to be hiding under the bed when Chaz returns unexpectedly with one of his girlfriends and fails to perform with her.
Hammernut, worried by Chaz’s reports of a home intruder, orders one of his employees, an illiterate, heavy-set and hairy man called Earl Edward O'Toole, to act as Perrone's bodyguard. As Chaz’s mental state deteriorates, O’Toole’s job description changes to “babysitter,” to prevent Chaz from exposing Hammernut. "Tool", as O'Toole is called by everybody, collects highway fatality markers, and has been addicted to fentanyl, a potent painkiller, ever since he was hit by a rifle bullet that remains embedded just underneath his tailbone.
Tool visits nursing homes, pretending to be an employee, and steals fentanyl skin patches off elderly patients' bodies. During one of these expeditions, Tool meets Maureen, a dying woman with whom he develops a friendly relationship.
Joey and Stranahan soon develop a sexual relationship and continue to plan more intricate and sophisticated acts of revenge. Stranahan has the idea of pretending to blackmail Chaz, by inventing a witness to Joey’s murder.
Chaz is unnerved when a mysterious phone caller seems to know every detail of that night. He concludes that only Rolvaag could know so much about it. He confronts the detective with his accusation ("Can we please cut all this ridiculous bullshit? Just tell me how much you want.") The baffled detective becomes even more suspicious of Chaz.
Stranahan also recruits his brother-in-law, a corrupt lawyer, to draft a fake will leaving Joey’s entire fortune to Chaz. Delivering this to Chaz and to the police has the double effect of playing on Chaz’s vanity and greed, and energizing the stagnating investigation.
Chaz’s judgment deteriorates further with each passing day, and he erroneously concludes that his current mistress, Ricca, a hairdresser, is the blackmailer's girlfriend and accomplice. At gunpoint, Perrone drives her out to the swamp at Loxahatchee where, in the dark, he fires away at her. Though he only manages to wing her in the leg, Ricca plunges into the water and seemingly drowns. Unknown to Chaz, she survives and is rescued by an eccentric Vietnam veteran who considers the Everglades his home.
Both Stranahan and Rolvaag, working independently, trace the bill of sale of Chaz’s expensive Hummer to one of Hammernut's companies, and patient investigation leads them to discover the Everglades scam.
Rolvaag does not share his conclusions with his captain: there is no evidence directly linking the scam to Joey’s disappearance, but Rolvaag is confident that Chaz is doomed anyway. In his paranoid state, Chaz is likely to break down and confess to the scam to minimize his own punishment, while Hammernut is likely to foresee this and have Chaz eliminated. Rolvaag has even discovered hints that Joey is still alive — her credit card has been used to buy women's clothes and accessories — but does not share this with Chaz.
Meanwhile, a few friends and relatives are let in on the true state of affairs and play along with Stranahan and Joey. Her brother Corbett, a reclusive sheep farmer in New Zealand flies to Miami and gleefully arranges more surprises for Chaz: he hires a squadron of helicopters to buzz Chaz’s Hummer on his way to the Everglades, parodying a scene from Goodfellas, and then arranges a memorial service for Joey at which Chaz is expected to give a speech. Chaz gets up to deliver a tear jerker eulogy, but collapses with fright when Ricca enters the church on crutches and sits next to Rolvaag in the audience.
Joey’s other accomplice is her sexy friend from her book club, Rose Jewell, who approaches Chaz after the memorial service and offers to console him over dinner at her place. Expecting an easy lay and opportunity to show off his sexual prowess, Chaz accepts the invitation, only to be drugged by Rose and put to sleep in her bed.
Only half awake, he thinks he is hallucinating when he finds his presumably dead wife sitting at his side asking him reproachfully why he has tried to murder her. He confesses the truth, that he thought she had figured out his scam. She says she had no idea what he was doing, and he groggily responds, “So maybe I overreacted.”
“You really are a monster,” Joey said hoarsely.
“If you were real, I’d tell you I was sorry.”
“And I’d tell you to go straight to hell!” she said. “Why did you marry me in the first place?”
Chaz seemed truly surprised at the question. “Because you were hot. And we were so fantastic together.”
“Because I was HOT?” Joey eyed the lamp’s electrical cord, and thought: no jury in the country would convict me.
The following morning Chaz wakes up from his drug-induced slumber sitting naked at the wheel of his Hummer, which has been parked on the shoulder of a busy road during rush hour. Later he receives a video allegedly recorded on the night of the murder showing his crime, a film in which he clearly recognizes his wife although he can see himself only from behind. The cassette includes a message summoning him to a rendezvous to deliver the blackmail money.
The final showdown takes place at night out in the open sea during a heavy thunderstorm. Following the blackmailer's instructions, Perrone rents a small boat with an outboard motor and, together with Tool, drives to Stiltsville, a former community of wooden houses built on pilings that was eradicated by Hurricane Andrew. This is the spot where he is supposed to hand over a suitcase containing $500,000. Hammernut, who has provided the money, has instructed Tool to kill Perrone well before the encounter with the blackmailer and return the suitcase to him, but Tool has other plans: inspired by Maureen, he wants to abandon his life of crime, reform, and become a respectable citizen. However, before the blackmailers appear on the scene, Perrone shoots Tool, who falls into the water but, again unknown to Perrone, survives.
While Stranahan and Corbett are pulling Tool out of the water, Joey appears in the flesh and confronts her husband. Chaz is mortified — Joey is alive and on her way to the police, his scam with Red has been blown wide open, and last but not least, the will leaving Joey’s fortune to him has been a fake from the beginning. Joey is tempted to shoot him, but, following Mick’s instructions, tells him to get lost. Chaz flees in the boat.
Chaz safely arrives at the mainland with the money and immediately drives home. His new plan is to compose a suicide note ("Tonight I shall reunite with my beloved"), disappear and start a new life in Costa Rica. But before he can leave he is snatched out of his house by Hammernut and Tool (tipped off by Ricca), hog-tied, and driven to the Everglades. Stranahan and Joey have used the blackmail money as the perfect bait — Chaz couldn’t resist the opportunity to grab it, and Hammernut concludes that the “blackmail” was just a con by Chaz to rip him off.
When Hammernut orders Tool to shoot Chaz, Tool deliberately misses and the biologist escapes into the swamp. On the way home to Hammernut's farm the entrepreneur insults Tool, who takes revenge on his boss in the middle of nowhere by slaying him and impaling his body on one of roadside crosses of the same type that Tool collects.
Joey Perrone decides to stay with Stranahan on the island. Corbett has taken an interest in Ricca, and invites her to share some time on his farm in New Zealand. Rolvaag finally closes the case and moves back to his native Minnesota. Before he goes, Rose tells him her mother lives in Minnetonka and coquettishly invites him to lunch the next time she’s in town.
In the end, Tool is left with all the money. He decides to spend the first part of it on a vet who removes two bullets from his body, and on a new, comfortable pickup truck in which he embarks on a trip to Canada. He takes along Maureen, who he has rescued from the nursing home at her request, and who wants to see the pelicans migrating.
In the book’s final pages, Chaz is picked up by the semi-deranged Vietnam veteran, who knows all about him through his encounter with Ricca. No description is given of Chaz’s ultimate fate, but several clues are dropped. In response to Chaz’s limp enquiry about what happens next, the veteran quotes Tennyson: “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”
The other central plot is the fight to save the Everglades, and the role that the villains are playing in its destruction. Somewhere along the way, the two plot lines converge, and the quest to take revenge on Chaz becomes tied up with the aim of stopping Red’s pollution.
In other words, the reader is offered a choice of which thing to root for: some readers may think that Chaz’s betrayal of the environment for money makes him detestable, but trying to murder his wife is what makes him a true monster; other readers may think the exact opposite.
Skinny Dip is also enriched by a variety of subplots: Tool's gradual moral awakening, as he grows closer to a dying old lady who is too proud to admit that she has been abandoned by her family; Karl Rolvaag's longing for his native Minnesota, and his search for his escaped pet pythons; Chaz’s obsession with sex and his desperate attempts to reverse the erectile dysfunction which is his only sign of guilt over Joey’s murder, including experimenting with a black-market version of Viagra — "the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definitely would not approve."; and finally, the suitcase full of money, which changes hands until it falls into the grip of the least likely person in the story.
The novel contains many scenes reminiscent of classic farces. For instance, at one point there are five people in the Perrone house, three of whom are trying to hide their presence from the other: at the center is Chaz and his “back-up” girlfriend Medea, with whom he has just unsuccessfully attempted sexual relations; hiding under the bed is Joey, caught in the middle of another infiltration of the house; Tool is in another part of the house, ordered to protect Perrone but ordered by him to stay out of the way of his date; and finally Mick, who enters in search of Joey and, when he encounters Tool, politely asks him if he’s going to try and stop Mick. (“What a dumb-ass question. Of course I am.”)
In a similar situation, Chaz, expecting sex with Rose, is drunk and drugged and lured into bed, not knowing that the woman he’s groping for is in fact his wife.
Other funny situations arise out of Chaz’s paranoia and ineptness as a killer. He imagines he’s surrounded by enemies, but he always manages to look in the wrong direction. Even when the truth — for example, Joey — is right in front of him, he attributes it to hallucinations caused by the West Nile virus, rather than recognizing it for a sophisticated hoax.
As usual, Hiaasen divides the characters into those who like nature, and those who don’t. The ones who like it the most have often been beaten around by society, and choose to make the great outdoors their permanent home. Mick, after years as a cop in the city, likes nothing better than fishing off his island. On the other hand, the lone Vietnam veteran has seemingly lost the fight against his adversaries, and run away. However, we are pointed to the fact that, unlike the villains, he lives a sustainable life absolutely in tune with nature, without depleting any natural resources or polluting the environment.
The villains, of course, only think of nature as an obstacle or a resource to be exploited. They are often portrayed as so steeped in corruption and greed that they think of themselves as heroes, or at least as normal guys, through an “everybody does it” rationalization. Red Hammernut is a corporate fat cat who inherited the building blocks of his fortune from his father and reaps his profits through the overindulgence of the state; yet he thinks only of all the “work” he has to do — handing out campaign donations, overseeing his labor force of indentured migrants, lobbying around or avoiding pollution laws — and sees himself as a hard-working “American farmer.”
This was no easy gig. Red Hammernut got infuriated every time he heard some pissy liberal refer to the federal farm bill as ‘corporate welfare.’ The term implied contented idleness, and nobody worked harder than Red to keep the money flowing and to stay out of trouble.
Likewise, Chaz sees absolutely nothing wrong with his role in helping Hammernut continue to pollute the Everglades:
Blaming the demise of the Everglades on science whores such as himself seemed as silly to Chaz as blaming lung cancer on the medical doctors employed by tobacco companies, who for generations had insisted that cigarettes were harmless. The truth was that people were determined to smoke, regardless of what any pinhead researchers had to say. Likewise, cities and farms were bound to dispose of their liquefied crap in the cheapest, most efficient way: flushing it into public waters.
You can’t buck human nature, Chaz reasoned, so you might as well go with the flow, so to speak.
Chaz Perrone is one of Hiaasen’s funniest villains. The novel's jacket introduces him as "[maybe] the only marine biologist who doesn't know which way the Gulf Stream runs" and this is the key to his character. Like all Hiaasen bad guys, he is lazy, amoral, greedy, illiterate, and averse to nature, but unlike the others his particular corruption forces him to pose in a role for which he is spectacularly unsuited.
As a "scientist" for the water management district, his standard kit for collecting water samples includes his Hummer (bright yellow, “to freak out any panthers that might be lurking,” despite the fact that Florida panthers are both colorblind and nearly extinct), and a golf club, which he swings wildly around him to scare away any nearby fish, birds, or reptiles before he’ll set foot in the water. (“He would have carried a high-caliber rifle, except it was strictly forbidden[.]”)
What makes Chaz so funny is that he’s too vain to realize what an obvious fake he is, and thus his attempts to appear sophisticated, suave, or innocent only dig him in deeper: on the strength of his PhD he arrogantly insists on being addressed as “Dr. Perrone” then immediately has to explain that he’s not an M.D. (especially to Tool, who keeps bugging him for prescription drugs). His flippant error about the direction of the Gulf Stream is made to Detective Rolvaag, and reveals a gap in his credentials as a scientist; in subsequent conversations with the detective, Chaz jokes about running over snakes on the highway, tells Rolvaag to throw his soda can in the trash, and can’t even identify the fish in his own aquarium — “Do I look like frigging Jacques Cousteau?”
What’s funniest is his “fabulous inefficiency” as a killer. At his first attempt, he tosses his wife overboard at sea, forgetting that she’s a champion swimmer; at his second, he is so inexperienced with guns that he can’t hit Ricca with a pistol shot from thirty feet away; at his third, he shoots Tool at point blank range, yet only manages to wound him in the armpit. Each of these three persons survives, and resurfaces to take part in the revenge plot against him.
Yet it should not be missed that, psychologically at least, Chaz is perfectly capable of murder. He’s so egocentric that he’s incapable of real feeling for anyone, whether it’s his wife, his mistress, or his own mother. Chaz has no attachment to Joey except as a sex object (though that attachment is strong enough to cripple his libido after she’s gone). Not only does he toss her overboard at sea, afterwards he blandly gathers all her belongings and clothes and dumps them in the garbage — as Joey tearfully says, “sweeping me out the door like I was dirt.”
Joey is everything Chaz isn’t: smart, classy, observant, sensitive, and subtle — once she finally admits to herself how worthless her husband is, she knows exactly where to probe his weaknesses and send him into a psychological corkscrew.
Another persistent theme of Hiaasen’s books is that his villains share bad qualities that lead them down self-destructive paths. First, there’s Chaz’s paranoia, which is so intense that he decides to murder Joey because he (incorrectly) assumes she has figured out his scam, thereby setting in motion the whole chain of events that leads to his destruction. Second, there’s his greed: when the chance to escape with the blackmail money is offered, he grabs at it, exposing himself to Hammernut’s revenge. Third, there’s his arrogance and vanity, which makes him totally incapable of stopping and analyzing what he’s doing wrong, and thus stopping suspicion from piling on in Rolvaag’s mind.
Grunwald maintains that the state effort to curtail agricultural pollution is separate from the Everglades Restoration Project, and had been largely successful even before the Project commenced in 2000. Instead, the biggest threat to the Everglades comes not from corporate pollution or corrupt officials, but rather from "John Q. Public" — the diversion of freshwater for South Florida’s huge municipalities, and the normal waste products associated with such cities. Grunwald says that when conservation efforts should focus on curtailing the effects of public activity, it is misleading and dangerous to lay all the blame on "bad guys" personified by Red Hammernut and Chaz.
On the other hand, Grunwald agrees that it is "smart to be cynical" about Florida politics, "especially all the daily blathering about conserving our precious natural resources." A recurring theme in Grunwald’s book, The Swamp, is that for the majority of Florida’s history, the Everglades has been viewed as a hostile territory, a nuisance, or an obstacle to growth, and only very recently has perception changed to regard it as a place worth saving.
Hiaasen is also scathing about this in the chapter when he briefly summarizes the history of the Everglades, and how ninety percent of it has been destroyed through the course of South Florida’s development:
Inevitably, the Everglades and all its resplendent wildlife began to die, but no one with the power to prevent it even considered trying. It was, after all, just a huge damn swamp.
But later, it became clear that the Everglades’ health was linked to South Florida’s drinking water, and if the Everglades died, then growth would stop dead:
This apocalyptic scenario was laid out before Florida’s politicians, and in no time at all even the most slatternly among them was extolling the Everglades as a national treasure, that must be preserved at all costs.
Grunwald, Michael. "Swamp Things" New Republic, November 11, 2004.