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"Denny Braintree, a wisecracking loner devoted to model trains, finds himself stranded in late-winter Vermont. His night at the hotel begins with promise, but then his prospective one-night stand walks out on him. Leaving town, Denny is mistaken for lookalike Homer Dumpling, a popular native son who mysteriously disappeared from town three years earlier. Instead of correcting the mistake, Denny dons his new identity as easily as a Vermonter's winter fleece, and a good thing too - the woman he had hoped to sleep with has turned up dead, and Denny
"Denny Braintree, a wisecracking loner devoted to model trains, finds himself stranded in late-winter Vermont. His night at the hotel begins with promise, but then his prospective one-night stand walks out on him. Leaving town, Denny is mistaken for lookalike Homer Dumpling, a popular native son who mysteriously disappeared from town three years earlier. Instead of correcting the mistake, Denny dons his new identity as easily as a Vermonter's winter fleece, and a good thing too - the woman he had hoped to sleep with has turned up dead, and Denny is the chief suspect." As Denny tries to unravel the mystery, he struggles to hide his true identity from Homer's increasingly suspicious circle of family and friends, including Homer's prickly girlfriend. In Denny, David Carkeet has crafted a fast-talking bumbler whose instinct for survival will face the ultimate challenge, with readers cheering him on all the way.
One thing should be clear from the outset: David Carkeet is not a crime novelist, not in the way we think of the term now. He doesn't set out with a sense of righteous fury to chronicle society's ills, nor does he wish to document murder in all of its transfixing brutality. Instead his touch is lighter, more whimsical, featuring protagonists who, instead of being tortured, are mildly affronted at best. When they find themselves in the crosshairs of the law, they don't mount an outraged crusade, but conduct a parallel investigation of the real culprit of murder that carries a veneer of the absurd, as if they know how ridiculous it is to play amateur sleuth. And while a crime novel's devil should always be in the details, Carkeet's characters are more often bedevilled by linguistic anomalies, the taste of homemade pie, and the baffling habits of the women they want to woo.
Put another way, crime fiction protagonists find murder, while murder finds Carkeet's reluctant sleuths. They aren't looking for trouble, or at least not according to their own occasionally convoluted logic. They want to be liked, but sometimes have a hard time expressing that to others, who misconstrue their habitual complaining as a manifestation of darker emotions. The net result for readers is a sense of being swayed off the expected narrative course into more intriguing, messier byways of human behavior, whose larger mysteries will always dwarf that of who killed whom.
Take Jeremy Cook, first introduced in Carkeet's first novel Double Negative (1980), nominated for an Edgar Award and newly reissued by Overlook Press. His entire existence ispockmarked with oddball situations and observations -- after all, his day job as "resident genius" of the Wabash Institute has him considering the curious linguistic incidents of toddlers in the day care center next door. Southern Indiana real estate, evidently, makes for strange bedfellows, never clearer in the makeup of Cook's equally research-minded colleagues, from the uptight piece of human clockwork Walter Wach (about whom Cook comments: "He's not important . . . he just runs the place.") to the bearded, barrel-chested Emory Milke (whom Cook considers his rival in matters of the opposite sex) to harried family man Ed Woeps, whose young son Wally proves to be the bearer of a key clue in the form of a piercing, seemingly inexplicable "m-bwee" sound.
One of this delightedfully-named crew will be murdered, his body inconveniently stashed in Jeremy's office, and yet the group will openly theorize about which of them best fits the likely-culprit profile over coffee at a morning meeting or alcohol at that night's party. The investigating officer, Lieutenant Leaf, will suspect everyone and yet give Jeremy a wide berth to go about his business, relaying important details even as other points remain hidden with some Machiavellian flourish. And Jeremy will spend as much time, if not more, trying to discern which of his colleagues secretly thinks he's an asshole and if the new and comely research assistant will transfer her affections from Milke to himself.
But the lackadaisical attention to what in another writer's hands would be the center of the plot is part of Double Negative's charm. Unlike Cook, who wants to be liked and to like people but doesn't really know how, or Arthur Stiph, so concerned with his theory that the greatest of friends should really be barely suppressed enemies or "backfriends" that he charts it in extensive detail, Carkeet has his idiosyncratic vision and sticks with it regardless of whether the reader is on board, because by book's end, he or she will be. Why else would he bring Cook back in two subsequent books: The Full Catastrophe (1990) and The Error of Our Ways (1997), whose core mysteries have nothing whatsoever to do with murder? (Both these books will be reissued later this year.)
A good litmus test is this description of Cook's semi-daily Grunt Meals, a "single dish, casserole-style, with ground beef as the central ingredient" that, yes, is buttressed by theory: "Cook's philosophy toward eating was starkly realistic. Hunger was a pain that interfered with important things like doing linguistics. Food ended that pain. Food allowed you to get on with it . . . For Cook's purposes, the outstanding virtue of a Grunt Meal was not that it made him grunt . . . but rather that it ensured that he would not want to eat right away again. If ever."
Such ruminations figure prominently in Carkeet's first novel in over a decade, From Away, and his first proper mystery since Double Negative. Like Jeremy Cook, Denny Braintree is a little too sure of himself, even as volatile situations would dictate a more cautious, less reckless approach. Unlike Jeremy, Denny's more of a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, whether it pertains to his corpulent appearance, his relationship with women, or assuming someone else's identity.
Not that it's Denny's fault; it's that a one-night stand in a small Vermont town goes awry ("his sexual outcomes often pivoted on . . . small variables") and in short order, the woman turns up dead, with Denny's name ensuingly broadcast as "a person of interest." But Denny has also been mistaken for one of the town's most beloved figures, Homer Dumpling, long thought to have hightailed it down south three years prior for reasons that remain murky. This, Martin Guerre-like twist suits Denny just fine: he'll just move into Homer's house, connect (or is it reconnect?) with Homer's girlfriend Sarah, and fend off friendly neighbours and police officers who are suspicious of the name Braintree but are blind to the obvious. Surely not all three hundred-plus pound men look or sound alike, and the differences so easily explained away?
Even Denny is suspicious at how easy this accidental con is, with his flippant answer to Sarah's genuine bafflement over whether he is, in fact, the real Homer: "I'm your human tool. I'm the physical plant. The maintenance department. And the financing. Or at least I have been. Not anymore though . . . there's a new sheriff in town."
But look, another clue comes bubbling to the surface via the book's title. A long absence allows glaring inconsistencies to get smoothed over. A visitor takes on another man's guise, and in the process, learns more about his true nature than he ever could under his real name. With so much ink spilled about real versus imagined, "reality" versus scripted work and plagiarism ceding the way for something both more ambiguous and dangerous, no wonder Carkeet dives so eagerly into the wide terrain of what Denny refers as "altruistic impersonation."
When it's no longer an option to be yourself, why not slip into somebody else's welcoming costume, especially when those who ought to know the truth either look the other way or tacitly approve? In examining these behavioral quirks, David Carkeet digs deep into unsettling territory that even the most hard-boiled of crime novels wouldn't dare touch. Affability, it turns out, is the most dangerous trait of all.
Sarah Weinman writes "Dark Passages," a monthly online crime fiction column for the Los Angeles Times, and blogs about the genre at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind sarahweinman.com.)
Posted May 6, 2010
At the center of From Away is the novel's richest accomplishment: the incomparable Denny Braintree. Denny is large and in charge. He's a selfish opportunist. Several of the Vermont locals who meet Denny for the first time think of him as a repellent personality. But there are unexpected and finely realized dimensions to Denny. For one thing, he has an exuberant inner life. His musings are not only funny but they convey an endearing sense of enthusiasm. And beneath Denny's considerable size and bluster is his most revealing aspect: He's a lonely man who keeps getting rejected by others, despite the self-improvements he tries to make. In his quietest moments, he wants to miniaturize the world, as he does with his model trains, and be its benevolent master.
By the end of this terrific novel Denny has emerged as a highly original, dare-I-say heroic character. Long Live Denny Braintree!
Posted January 1, 2010
At night Denny Braintree was driving on the icy road going to fast for conditions when he lost control; his skid left the car rental damaged and he missing his flight. After dealing with a State Trooper and EMS, Denny gets a ride with grandpa and Walt who dump him at a hotel where the desk clerk knows Walter who leaves without a goodbye. However, the hotel is filled with legislatures wasting the taxpayers' money, but he gets the room because of Freckles whatever species that is. By phone his boss Roscoe fires him for his odd behavior interfering with his work. However, Denny is uninterested as he thinks he will have fun with Marge.
Instead just when he believes he has a one night stand, Marge leaves. Preparing to escape the insanity of the hotel and its town, people begin to call Denny Homer Dumpling, who vanished without a trace three years ago. When he realizes no one believes he is Braintree and that Homer remains popular amongst the locals, he decides to stick around for a while. This proves a smart move when Marge is found dead and the cops believe the "missing" Denny did it.
Readers will enjoy Denny's thought process starting with the State trooper interviewing him, his hotel stay and his time residing in Homer's home while the real missing man's girlfriend Sara is also there. The story line is breezy and fun as Denny's reactions and actions are seemingly abnormal yet enable him to survive crisis after crisis. Filled with twists including a brilliant encounter, fans will root for the antihero whose love for real and model trains enhance the audience inability to understand an eccentric fascinating individual who brings a fresh outlook to the Vermont crime scene.
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