A Book by its Cover: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

21 May

Morgan Filchberger is the last 911 Dispatcher to be promoted to Detective after floppy-armed robots replaced the entire workforce. Anyone else might be bitter about that, but Morgan has failed the Department of Uniformed Detectives Exam five times. Now, he’s living the dream:  the pay is good and he gets to tell his high school buddies that he’s a real badass. That is until members of the Irradiated Blue Man Group start showing up dead and partially digested in the streets of Orlando. With Captain Northrup Wilkinson and the union representative of the IBMG breathing down his neck, Morgan wonders if he’s really cut out for the detective life…

Enter Felicia Guffman, a smartmouthed rookie slash amateur thespian with a penchant for unfinished Greek tragedies and Morgan’s new partner. If there’s one thing Felicia does well, it’s propping up mediocre (male) members of law enforcement to make them look good. Call it a gift. Or a curse. Whatever you call it, Felicia has been putting her talents to use since graduating from the Louisiana Academy of Detective Youths four years ago. And a bunch of dead glowing blue guys aren’t going to keep her from making a name for herself, even if she has do it by making Morgan into a hero before exposing him for the fraud that he is.

But as Morgan and Felicia begin uncovering a conspiracy involving the mayor of Orlando, theme park assassins, and a wooden rollercoaster that decapitates children, they both realize there’s something greater at stake than their egos or their careers:  friendship. 

John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s WarRedshirts, and the sleeper classic, Weekend at Bernie’s III: The Decomposing, returns to his roots as a former Orlando nightclub owner in this uneven detective story. Indeed, Orlando natives may be surprised to know that many scenes from The Dispatcher are lifted from Scalzi’s memoir, Party Like It’s Humid, released from now-defunct Gator Press in 1995. As Scalzi notes in a recent interview with The Guardian:  “A lot of my writing is essentially an extended metaphor of my experiences as a nightclub owner. Even Old Man’s War. When I used to run Squidgy, an art-deco retro-90s club, there was a guy named Frank who used to come in looking like he’d crawled out of a cloning pod, all green and weirdly alien. The guy could dance up a storm, though. We stopped playing SNAP! songs after he broke a table doing the worm with a bit too much vigor…”

The Dispatcher most likely pulls from his time as a bartender for Universal Studio’s original Blue Man Group nightclub, which ran from 1992 to 1994 on CityWalk. Reading Scalzi’s memoir reveals several run-ins with Orlando and Universal Parks police, who originally believed members of the Blue Man Group were disappearing. Later reports prove that the early days of the group were rocky, with many members simply leaving due to the physical strain of all that blue makeup. Regardless, Morgan is clearly a fictional analogue of Detective Gregor Vincent, who was forced into retirement after accusing Lakeland media mogul Freddie Murps of staging illegal dance-offs in the area formerly known as the Greater Orlando Woodlands — now the site of Universal Studio’s Volcano Bay. Many of the supporting characters are drawn from Scalzi’s memoir, too, though Felicia appears to be wholly original.

While these allusions to Scalzi’s real life will certainly fascinate die-hard fans, newer readers may find the narrative a bit uneven. For one, Morgan’s promotion to Detective makes little sense, in part because he appears to have no idea what a detective actually does. At various points throughout the story, he bumbles through basic police procedures such as evidence collection and the proper attire for dealing with radioactive dead people — i.e., not trenchcoats. He also spends an exorbitant amount of time staring at bodies without gleaning much from their composition. The benefit of this is that it offers a perfect contrast to Felicia, who is competent, efficient, and damn good at police work. Unfortunately, this is the most unbelievable element of the book, since no reader would buy the idea that a completely inept man would get a job over a perfectly capable woman with years of education and actual experience. Thankfully, Scalzi resolves this narrative in his usual clever way.

Still, as uneven as the narrative of this story may be, the characters are a blast, especially Virgil Orb, the leader of the IBMG and initial suspect for the murders. As comedic relief, Virgil’s frequent shouting matches, contradictions, and outright lies are perfect contrasts to the absurd differences between Morgan and Felicia. One can’t help but wonder if Virgil is based on anyone in Scalzi’s real life or an analogue for someone we all know — a kind of extended metaphor, if you will. Either way, reading about Virgil’s boisterous claims about his greatness while dealing with repeated intrusions by the police adds a flavor of the absurd to an otherwise mundane detective story. Of course, the fascinating part of Virgil’s narrative isn’t that he’s a bloated windbag who happens to be innocent, but that his bloated windbag-iness ultimately suggests something more sinister is at work within the IBMG. My guess is a conspiracy involving interference from a foreign circus group, but you can put your money where you like. There’s certainly a sequel to this story in the works if I’ve picked up the right clues, but we’ll probably have to wait for several years for that sneaky story to be revealed. Rome didn’t collapse in a day, after all.

If you’re looking for a detective story with a flare of the fantastic, I recommend checking out The Dispatcher. Though this book doesn’t hold a proverbial candle to Scalzi’s debut detective masterpiece, The Orangutan Weeps, it still shines as a quirky Florida-style cozy mystery. Scalzi readers will be enthused by what he has to offer here; new readers to the Scalzi franchise will likely find good reason to check out his other works.


A Book by its Cover is a (renewed) monthly joke column featuring a review based on the cover and nothing else. Any similarities in our review to the book are purely coincidental and proof that we are awesome. You can purchase an actual copy of the very real book at Subterranean Press.

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2 Responses to “A Book by its Cover: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi”

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  1. Link Love | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) - May 27, 2017

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    […] A Book by its Cover: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi (written by Shaun Duke) […]

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