Humorous crime fiction is hard to pull off. (We’re leaving Donald Westlake out of this discussion. He could make anything work, from Dortmunder to Parker.) Elmore Leonard has a reputation for being funny, but, with the possible exception of Get Shorty, his books aren’t written to be funny. The humor is endemic to the situation, and to the intellectual capacity of the characters, who are most often inadvertently funny. (The characters, I mean. Leonard has no accidents in his writing.)
A lot of authors try to write tongue-in-cheek crime fiction; none blends the elements better than Jon Loomis. His Frank Coffin mysteries never make light of the seriousness of the crimes, but juxtapose them against what may be absurd conditions to create a unique atmosphere.
Loomis’s newest is Fire Season. The book opens with the killing of a restaurant’s tame seals, kept in their own tank near the beach as a tourist attraction in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Soon a series of increasingly serious arson fires breaks out, and a local doctor is found dead in gruesome fashion. Whether any of these are related is a key element of the story, so we’re not going to discuss it here.
There are two keys to the success of Loomis’s stories, and Fire Season is no exception. First is Coffin, a Provincetown detective and acting chief of police. He worked homicide in Baltimore for several years, finally leaving because he’d developed a phobia about corpses. He returned to his native Provincetown to get away from that, but they insist on popping up in the least expected places. His girlfriend is pregnant and hyperaware of things, and his mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, which leaves her prone to what she thinks of as pranks and the other residents of her nursing home consider terrorist acts.
The other thing the series could not exist without is Provincetown as a setting. The town on the farthest tip of Cape Cod, always a summer tourist attraction, has become an enclave for the LGBT community, often flamboyantly so. It’s P’town that makes the humor work, as the bizarre settings allow Loomis to make the comedy endemic to the scene without diminishing the seriousness of the situation. Everything is held together by Loomis’s acceptance of everyone in Provincetown as they are. He never condescends of make fun of them, rather welcomes them as the engine that makes his stories fun to read. How do you make murder scene interviews funny without minimizing the brutality of the crime? Interview half a dozen Tall Ships (male transvestites) in various stages of undress, and capture their side conversations.
Coffin is not alone. The supporting cast more than carries its weight. Even those who aren’t P’town crazies realize they live in a sometimes surreal environment, and make their decisions accordingly. The normal rules of logic don’t always apply in Loomis’s Provincetown, but loomis sticks to the rules he has created so the reader never feels cheated, but also never quite sure how each event will be received.
Fire Season is the third Frank Coffin mystery, after High Season and Mating Season, both of which are also highly recommended. (Especially the premiere, High Season.) Enough loose ends are left for the characters to carry on should Loomis decide to keep writing them. Let’s hope so. He’s carved out a unique niche in crime fiction. It would be a shame to lose it.