‘The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir'
Written by: By Ken Harmon
Price: $15 (paperback); also available in hardcover
Rating: Five out of five bookmarks
It's interesting to think about the different ways that Christmas has been depicted throughout the decades in movies and television shows. For many of us, holiday movies such as "A Christmas Story," "It's a Wonderful Life," and "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" are part of our Christmas tradition.
So what could be better than having all of our treasured holiday icons of the silver screen sewn cleverly into a 1940's style pulp thriller that involves murder, deception and a plot to take over the North Pole? That's what you'll find in the witty, fast-paced mystery adventure of Ken Harmon's "The Fat Man: a Tale of North Pole Noir."
The story introduces us to Gumdrop Coal, one of Santa's elves, specifically the one who deals out lumps of coal to all the kids on the naughty list every year. His job of punishing bad kids has made him cynical and frustrated, particularly since his methods don't seem to be having the same disciplinary effects that they once did.
Meanwhile, he is being hassled by a rival elf for being too harsh on children, and Gumdrop is given the boot when Santa is convinced that all kids, regardless of behavior, should be given presents and no one should be punished.
Gumdrop, deciding that he needs to change his tactics, starts to go after the parents of the naughty kids, hoping that by scaring the parents badly enough, they will teach their children to behave. But then when one of the parents is found dead (shot in the eye by a Red Ryder BB gun), Gumdrop becomes the lead suspect and is on the run for his life.
With the help of a spunky elf reporter named Rosebud, Gumdrop must discover who is framing him and stop a chain of events that would put Santa out of commission permanently and destroy Christmas forever.
What makes this book so enjoyable is recognizing all the famous Christmas characters that we've known and loved for years in new forms, including a comic book hero, George, who has the power to lasso the moon; Charles "Candy" Cane, an elf mogul who lives on an estate at the North Pole called Xanadu; even the Nutcracker makes an appearance, in the form of a 20-foot tall henchman who's out to crush Gumdrop and his friends.
Yet it's Gumdrop that really stands out, as he tells the story with the language of a classic hard-boiled detective (he warns that "If you decide to pout, shout and cry, I'll tattoo your mug with a rock that stings all winter long").
Despite all the parodies and often cartoonish situations that occur in the story, Gumdrop is a surprisingly complex elf. His journey forces him to face himself and whether or not he deserves to be with the light-hearted, loving characters in Kringle Town (Santa's side of the North Pole), or the cold-hearted, hateful residents of the broken-down town of Pottersville.
Does he punish children because he enjoys it, or because he desires to help them shape up and learn to be good? Why does it seem like all of his efforts to do the right thing result in disaster? Is it worth saving Christmas if the line between good and bad no longer matters?
His final revelation of the meaning of Christmas turns out to be a truly touching one, as heartfelt as any holiday special we grew up watching every year.
"The Fat Man" is a perfect story for someone looking for good laughs, unexpected surprises and clever writing. It manages to convey a timeless message without being corny, while adding a whole new spin to both the noir and the parody genres.
Gumdrop Coal could become as memorable a Christmas figure as the Grinch or Scrooge, although he's tough enough to convince either of those notorious curmudgeons to stay off the naughty list.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.