Ken Harmon, The Fat Man

Just in time for the holidays, The Fat Man aims to be this year’s stocking stuffer for readers of a noir persuasion. A festive murder mystery set at the North Pole, it even comes complete with its own two thirds sized Marlowe, of sorts. Gumdrop Coal is one of Santa’s more cynical elves, but like his Chandlerian inspiration, there’s a nugget of hope nestling somewhere under his hard-boiled exterior. But, then, there ought to be, he’s a magical elf, right?

I like the concept here. The classic tropes of a mystery thriller are no less effective when laid over a fairy tale setting, and there’s a good tradition of it already. Off the top of my head, Neil Gaiman’s classic short story, “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds”, not to mention Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series, where detective Jack Spratt is responsible for determining who pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall, or the whereabouts of the escaped Gingerbread Man. But a story can’t coast on novelty alone. At it’s heart, even the silliest world has to be able to maintain a suspension of disbelief, and even a satire of noir must work as noir. So how does The Fat Man hold up?

Harmon describes himself as a lifelong fan of Hammett and Chandler, so he knows where his story conventions come from. He does a pretty decent job of mimicking the first person narrative style of a hard-boiled detective story (with a holiday twist), and his protagonist is reasonably world-weary, complete with a tendency to drink too many glasses of “cheer”. The obligatory holiday puns are never in short supply, and often hit the mark.

Harmon has created a world where every reindeer or elf sung about in a Christmas carol character has his place, but that also means this story is almost exclusively populated by one- or two-dimensional cameo characters. He puts his own twist on things, to be sure, but what motivates many of these secondary players remains a mystery to the reader. His original creation, Gumdrop, is the best developed of all, there are plenty of internal monologues to see to that, but he still comes across as only two and a half dimensions, tops. I don’t fully understand what drives him.

Similarly, some of the more abstract aspects of the conspiracy at the heart of this book go beyond the revenge and lust for power that are the bread and butter of noir mysteries. It has to do with defining and redefining the meaning of Christmas, the real goal of Santa Clause’s annual sleigh ride, the question of which children should receive coal in their stockings, or even if anyone should; the philosophizing and moralizing on these topics made the story drag and took me out of it. Even though this is a Christmas story, I’m not sure there should be such an obvious moral at the end of a gritty crime novel.

Imperfections aside, Harmon’s book fills a pretty specific niche: it’s something for mystery fans to read while they enjoy their egg nog. I’m sure the author and myself are not the only ones to share a love of noir, fantasy, comedy, and holly jolly fun.

(Dutton, 2010)

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