Already the writer of two other well-received mystery series, Michael Craft begins a new series set in the quiet town of Dumont, Wisconsin. Followers of Craft’s oeuvre will immediately recognize the setting from his Mark Manning series, and the characters of Marson Miles and Brody Norris, protagonists of his short story collection Inside Dumont. These short stories chronicled their meeting and courtship, events alluded to in Craft’s current FlabberGassed; now we find out what has happened to these two charming men, who have started their own architecture firm, and to the larger community they call home as well.
Ugly undercurrents brew beneath the idyllic surface of Dumont: current politics have intruded at a small-town level, when Sheriff Thomas Sims is up for re-election, his main opponent being an angry, racist deputy. Meanwhile the appropriately named Glee Savage chronicles all the small town happenings in the local Dumont Daily Register, much to everyone’s chagrin, and wealthy widow Mary Questman has been adopted by an exotic stray Abyssinian she has named Mister Puss—a cat that she insists speaks to her (or at least communicates with her via its purring). Several friends express concern that Mary may finally be losing it, including Brody. Into this mix of unusual personalities we must add the flamboyant Dr. Francis Frumpkin, a dermatologist with a revolutionary new weight-loss program, the eponymous “FlabberGas.” Frumpkin taps Brody to design the prototype of his “FlabberGas” clinics, and solicits Mary for start-up capital; but when a public demonstration of the process results in the death of Frumpkin’s own son-in-law, then all these characters come to a head, and everybody’s a suspect. Sherriff Sims calls on Brody to help him with the investigation, and soon Brody’s involvement leads to an attempt on his own life.
Craft’s return to the genre of gay mysteries, albeit in an entirely new direction (a book-length cat mystery) is handled masterfully. Craft keeps Brody and the reader guessing until almost the very end as to who the killer is, and the reason for the dastardly deed. Several characters have obvious motives against Dr. Frumpkin, and Brody spends most of his time eliminating suspects; interestingly, his interrogation leads him to some insights into his own family’s past. (His investigation also allows him to meet a very attractive suspect—who presents Brody with the following dual ethical conundrum: can Brody resist Dahr’s advances, for the sake of his own relationship with Marson, and remain impartial enough to aid Sheriff Sims?) And regardless of whether the reader is willing to suspend enough disbelief to accept a cat who communicates with humans, Mister Puss helps Brody’s investigation more by leading him to consider options hitherto unexplored, than by actually telling him who he should question. (In fact, it is another character’s interaction with Mister Puss that provides the key clue that helps Brody solve the case.)
At turns humorous, sexy, and even poignant, FlabberGassed is an entertaining read with a likeable protagonist, a tranquil town disrupted by a chilling crime, a colorful cast of characters, and a snarky cat; what’s not to like?
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske