This is a comic mystery unlike any other. Our protagonist, Dennis Braintree, is a hapless writer for the Fearless Modeler, a magazine for model train enthusiasts. On a business trip to Vermont, he manages to crash his car and is taken into Montpelier to stay overnight. After a series of odd encounters with the locals, he realizes that they all think he is Homer Dumpling, a local farmer who has been in Florida for the last three years.
A series of unfortunate events, many precipitated by Dennis’s propensity to leap to incorrect conclusions and say and do the wrong thing, makes Dennis decide it’s best for him to stay in town and allow everyone to continue to think he’s Homer. He moves into Homer’s country farm and finds it less of a quiet retreat than a handy place for nearly everybody in town to phone him or stop by for a visit. It’s a challenge for Dennis to figure out who’s who and answer questions appropriately, but he soon finds he has a talent for it.
Most people in town seem to like Homer/Dennis, but some people are mysteriously hostile: Sarah, Homer’s supposed girlfriend; neighbor Warren Boren, who keeps leaving threatening phone messages; and Lance, a local police detective and health nut, whose animosity and evident disgust at Homer’s/Dennis’s fat makes him perversely consume large quantities of food whenever Lance is around. Sarah is outrageously nasty to Homer/Dennis, ridiculing him and ordering him to do a laundry list of home-improvement chores that are far outside Dennis’s competence.
When Dennis, as Dennis, becomes a murder suspect, it’s up to Homer/Dennis to keep one step ahead of the law and try to solve the case himself, along with the mysteries of Sarah, Lance and Warren. The book is entertaining as a mystery and a farce, but it also examines the nature of identity, personality and socialization. Dennis is a great creation; socially inept, funny, wistful, clever and unforgettable.
David Carkeet has been flying under the radar too long. His DOUBLE NEGATIVE is another unusual mystery, with a quirky protagonist. I will be looking out for his THE FULL CATASTROPHE and THE ERROR OF OUR WAYS, both of which (along with DOUBLE NEGATIVE) were New York Times Notable Books. I hope those of you who enjoy comic mysteries will read this gem as soon as possible.