From Away is a different kind of mystery novel. It opens with Denny Braintree on his way back from assignment for the Fearless Modeler, the model train magazine he writes for. He crashes his rental car into a highway median and ends up stranded overnight in Montpelier, Vermont. Locals mistake him for Homer Dumpling – the hometown favorite who’d abruptly left without a word 3 years earlier. Denny, being Denny, immediately decides he likes being Homer. Mostly because everyone likes Homer (a new experience for Denny, who nobody seems to like). Partly because the next morning Denny Braintree becomes the chief suspect in a murder investigation. From Away contains multiple mysteries – there’s the murder, discovering what happened to the real Homer and the biggest mystery of all… what is the deal with Denny?
David Carkeet has created a 330-pound hero who isn’t even trying to be sympathetic. Within the first chapter it’s apparent that not only is Denny obnoxious, he knows it. He’s obnoxious by choice – to get a reaction and to make life more interesting. This self-awareness disarms you and redeems him. It also adds a certain amount of comedic value to the situations Denny finds himself in.
The trooper looked him up and down. “Were you wearing a seatbelt?”
“You’re asking me that because of my size, aren’t you? Driving while chubby – is that a crime?”
The trooper stood up straight. He turned and looked down the highway in one direction, then in the other. He came back to Denny, this time squatting at the open door instead of leaning in. “EMS is on the way. They’ll check you out.”
“I’ve got a plane to catch.”
The trooper bounced lightly on his haunches, up and down, as if exercising. Denny could never do that. “I don’t think you’re going to make that plane.”
“Fine. But I want to get going.”
The trooper stopped bouncing. “Are you refusing medical treatment?”
Denny liked the sound of that. “Yes. I’m refusing medical treatment. Does that make me an asshole?”
“No, sir.” The trooper paused. He paused quite a while. And then he said, “That doesn’t make you an asshole.”
Denny had to hand it to him. The pause had been good, of professional caliber, really. He looked from the trooper to the men in the front seat. Without moving or making a sound, they were chuckling. The amusement was contained, effectively sealed from view, but there could be no mistake. The Yankees were laughing at him.
This isn’t a book about character evolution. The Denny you encounter in the beginning isn’t all that different from the one you’ll leave at the end. He doesn’t get any nicer – as he says himself: he likes the way he is and doesn’t get why other people don’t. What changes is the readers’ perceptions. As the story gains momentum you’ll start to understand Denny and come to see who he is reflected in the people around him. You’ll want him to succeed – to get out of the mess he’s put himself in, to make friends, to keep up the facade of being Homer. There’s a stark honesty in how Carkeet has written his hero. Like Ignatius J. Reilley (A Confederacy of Dunces) or the Binewski children (Geek Love) or Tom Robbins entire bibliography of characters, Denny is an odd egg not without certain charms. He may be a bit weird, but he’s no hypocrite. He just sees the world from the outside looking in, which is the same way he explores his model train layouts. The more we learn about Denny and Homer and the people of Montpelier, the easier it is to appreciate Denny’s unique perspective.
From Away contains quite a bit of physical comedy. The kind more common in films than books. Carkeet manages to translate it nicely into print, resulting in some hilarious scenes. He’s created a large supporting cast of characters as goofy as Denny and a plot that is rock solid. He’s got great comedic timing. What’s best, though, is how much of From Away is unexpected. It you read a lot of mysteries, you already understand what a rare thing that is. David Carkeet is an author with a big, bold voice telling a story with surprising subtlety. His clues are to be found in the small details – not in conspicuously placed plot points. From Away is a mystery that stands out from the crowd, that will make you laugh and repeatedly catch you by surprise. It may take a little while to warm up to Denny, but once you do there’s no going back.
Publisher: The Overlook Press, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 59020 304 0