Friday, March 12, 2010

Crime Skyrockets in Vermont? Check the Outcome in FROM AWAY by David Carkeet

Sure, crashing your car into the highway median in a wild swooping slide on the snowy road can be exhilarating when you're drunk. (Now, how would you know that??) And being tipsy enough to relax in the crash makes it less likely that you'll get seriously hurt. And that's the fun of it for Denny Braintree, despite the head wound he incurs at the opening of FROM AWAY. He's ready to welcome the eager crowds to his crash scene, and declares himself "bloody but unbowed." However, in every good moment, there's a spoilsport, isn't there?
The trooper examined the license, his eyes going back and forth between the photo and Denny's face. Denny could have told him he was heavier now than when the photo was taken, but it was more interesting to let the trooper puzzle over it. Or maybe the trooper had looked at the birth date and wanted to tell Denny that he looked younger than forty-two. Anything was possible. Socially, the sky was the limit.

The trooper handed the wallet back to Denny. "When you run off the road," he said, "it's not the road's fault."
Oh, gosh. Unfortunately, if you live in Vermont, you've heard that one before. Either from your parents, your spouse, or, gulp, a trooper.

But for Denny Braintree, a traveling journalist whose best moments are with model trains, it's all new. So is the confusion unfolding around him. It takes most of a day for him to realize what's going on: He's a dead ringer (oops!) for someone who used to live nearby, someone who was really really important in the social scene in and around Vermont's capital city/town, Montpelier. In fact, although he's probably lost his writing job, it appears he's gained someone's house, and even, er, girlfriend -- if that's what he wants. All things considered, it's hard to believe the man he's supposed to be could have wanted this particular woman in his life, though.

David Carkeet has an acute eye for the embarrassments of life that come with body size and shape, accent, income or lack of it. His Vermont conversations ring surprisingly on target, for someone who -- like Denny -- hasn't always lived around here. And the rattlingly funny tale of murder, mayhem, and mistakes that he spins is a classic caper mystery, in the shoes of the great Donald Westlake.

Denny's best trait as he adapts to "being" local Homer Dumpling is his willingness to think on his feet, taking advantage of things like photos and home movies to absorb the names and patterns of Homer's friends and neighbors, and with this, to listen for clues and frame replies that don't give away his own cluelessness. For those of you not from Vermont, let me note that in local language, a "camp" is a vacation cottage or hunting shack in the woods or on a lake. Now look at Denny try to cope with the term:
By the time Denny neared the police cars, the investigators were on their way into the woods -- all but one, who was lifting a black case out of the trunk. As he slammed the lid, he spotted Denny and waved.

"I heard you were back, Homer," the man called out. "A sight for sore eyes." He was heading toward the woods but walking backwards, facing Denny. "I expect to see you out to your camp pretty soon."

"In my mind, I'm already there," Denny said.

The man laughed hard and long. Denny had no idea what his "camp" was. It seemed strange that he could get a laugh under these circumstances. Back home, his most carefully wrought jokes never produced laughter like that.

The man suddenly turned somber. "Got to go. A grim scene up there, I expect."
The "grim scene" includes another murder, and slowly it sinks in for Denny that maybe this Homer Dumpling had good reason to disappear. Or somebody disappeared him. Uh-oh.

Brace for chuckles and guffaws, and a quick, tight plot. It's good to be able to welcome author David Carkeet to the list of Vermont writers. Even with all the crime up here.

No comments: