Crime noir and Christmas tales don’t at first seem to have much in common. One trades in betrayal, misery, and existential despair; the other has guns. But both genres rely on the possibility of redemption. It’s just that in crime stories that possibility is nearly always out of reach. In Ken Harmon’s first novel, The Fat Man: A Tale Of North Pole Noir, a conglomeration of holiday clichés combine with a plot straight out of a Mike Hammer novel, and the results are agreeable enough, if never truly inspired. Harmon stacks the deck with a full supply of tough puns delivered through a Yuletide filter. It’s occasionally funny, more often groan-worthy, but at least there’s a heart beating under all those chestnuts.
Gumdrop Coal isn’t a nice elf. Or at least that’s what he likes to believe. Frustrated that naughty children were getting the same quality of presents from Santa Claus as the good kids, Gumdrop created the Coal Patrol, leaving fossil fuel under the trees of bullies and brats the world over, to teach them to be good, or get screwed. But a new elf, Charles “Candy” Cane, has Santa’s ear, and convinces the Fat Man to dump Gumdrop as bad news. Things get worse when one of Gumdrop’s least-loved targets drops dead, and Gumdrop is framed for the crime. Now, with the help of his best friend, Dingleberry Fizz, and his on-again-off-again lady love, Rosebud, Gumdrop has to clear his name and save his boss from the Misfit Mafia.
This all may sound ridiculous, and that’s because it is. The real trick of making this kind of mash-up work is to create a consistent world underlying the gags; if the story makes sense, if the characters are more than “Hey, I remember that!” references, then the jokes don’t all need to land. Harmon doesn’t entirely succeed at this. After the first few chapters, the novel gets into a passable rhythm of tough talk, holiday quips, and a few decent ideas. Harmon is trying for more than just a surface-level parody, but too often, he settles for surface-level cuteness. While Fat Man never really comes together, its modest ambition makes its clunkers easier to bear. Like most Christmas merchandise, there’s no real reason for this novel to exist. But as stocking-stuffers go, it’s better than a lump of, well, you know.