Monday, November 08, 2010

Oh, You’d Better Watch Out

Cozies have never been my crime-fiction subgenre of choice, and I generally avoid holiday-oriented cozies with the same ardency that I would a Tea Party rally. But there was something about this one that caught my interest. Certainly the title--The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir (Dutton)--seemed to have my name on it. So I thought I would read a few pages, just to see what interest it might hold ...

And I was immediately hooked. Like the jacket quotes from Louise Penny, John Lescroart, and Steve Hockensmith, I found Ken Harmon’s debut mystery starring a 2-foot-3-inch-tall, 1,300-year-old elf called Gumdrop Coal to be a sheer delight: hilarious, touching, and amazingly inventive.

Gumdrop’s troubles begin early, when he is fired from his centuries-long job as captain of the Coal Patrol, the elves who deliver lumps of carbon to naughty kids. Then he’s framed for murder, and realizes that not all is cool at the North Pole. Even Kris Kringle himself could be on his way out.

A headline in the local paper, The Marshmallow World Gazette, says it all: “Gumdrop Coal Fired from Coal Patrol--Santa’s Dark Elf is Out on His Ear.” That newspaper story was written by one Rosebud Jubilee, a sexy girl with a thing for elves, and it explains that Gumdrop has been replaced by Charles “Candy” Cane, an arch-villain who wants to take over the keys to Kringledom.

Harmon has the tremendous gift of taking what we’ve known all our lives and giving it a mighty spin. Here’s a small collection of tidbits from narrator Gumdrop to savor:

“Truth is, there aren’t that many places for elves in the world to go. Despite what you may have read, Middle Earth is really for outlaws. Middle Earth elves and dwarfs are desperadoes who are looking for a hole to hide in and maybe score a quick treasure.”

“Munchkins are elves, but they’ll try and tell you different. Munchkins are elf elitists, and if their Lollipop Guild puts the kibosh on your application, they’ll pretend they never knew you. ... They make their life sound all yippy skippy and ding-dong the witch is dead, but they don’t tell you the Flying Monkeys are still around.”

“The other poop you need to be wise to is that our world, Kringle Town, is in a different dimension than your human world, hovering at the edge of what you can see and hear. Kringle Town is always there, just out of sight. It’s how we see you when you’re sleeping, know when you’re awake.”

And then there’s the Island of Misfit Toys, where things that never worked but have acquired a life of their own are stored away. The only access to that island is provided by a barge piloted by Tiny Tim, who “was lonely, forgotten except for when Christmas needed a sad, saintly cherub to tug at the heartstrings.”

I could go on like this for pages, but I don’t want to spoil any of the pleasures to be had from picking up a copy of The Fat Man yourself. I can’t wait to see what Harmon has in his basket for Easter.

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