If you live in Vermont, you don’t expect to see your state appear in a book. Then along comes Archer Mayor and his Joe Gunther mystery series, and you find yourself nodding in appreciation to passages such as these: “... winter or summer, they each have their appeal. I like the warmth and hate the bugs; love the snow and hate to shovel.” Or Vermont and New Hampshire look like “the upside-down mirror image of the other on a map.” In “Fall Guy,” the 33rd novel in the series, this local strand is just one of many that Mayor deftly weaves into the novel.
The intricate plot — one of those key strands, of course — has a chase, a fall, twists, some high-tech sleuthing, and an explosive ending — enough to satisfy virtually any mystery reader. (Vague enough not to give anything away?) It involves theft, fencing of stolen goods, a cold case, child pornography and murder.
An equally important strand is the returning characters. Central is Joe Gunther, a cross between Joe Friday and Atticus Finch (yes, a throwback to an earlier era) — stoic, principled, loyal and smart. Gunther heads up the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, which investigates murders, and conveniently a dead body turns up — car trunk variety. Other investigative team members are Willy Kunkle, acerbic but brilliant in the field; his wife Sammie, who tolerates her husband’s ventures into the gray areas of the law but stays firmly planted herself; and her partner, the lanky Lester Spinney, open to helping Willy’s gray ventures.
In Open Season, the first in the series, written in 1988, Joe narrates, and so all action is filtered through him. In this latest novel, Mayor uses third-person (Joe moves from “I” to “he,”) allowing Mayor to shift perspectives, for example, moving from Joe meeting with an out-of-state detective, to Willy crouching through dense forest with Lester and avoiding a tripwire as they conduct surveillance. This move to third-person allows greater character development of the investigative team and promotes suspense by jumping from one plotline to the next. Instead of being one man’s chronicle, as in the earlier novels, “Fall Guy” is more fully a police procedural.
Mayor is a “death investigator” for Vermont, and he has been a firefighter and emergency medical technician. As such, he’s able to weave into the novel all sorts of acronyms, procedures and details that establish the appearance of truth — the verisimilitude — of the story, crucial to a reader suspending disbelief and plunging into this imaginary world. However, the acronyms flying furiously near the novel’s start (TFO, ICAC, VBI, RAC) and the many characters bumping into and out of the first pages make the opening choppy for me. Still, once the novel settles in, I believe fully in observations such as this one, from a surveillance scene: “Willy opened the door, which, as with most unmarked police cars, did not trigger the dome light.” Cool. Didn’t know that. Who knows if it’s true? But within the book, it seems true.
A final strand for me is the tone. I like moments in the novel that slip into a hard-boiled tone, befitting the book’s nasty criminal element, and delivering much-needed humor. Willy at one point orders a suspect to sit. “The man stalked over to the alcove and sat rigidly. ‘There. Happy?’
…‘Delirious,’ Willy said.
‘You’ve got an attitude….’
‘I’ve heard that.’”
And this tone is varied enough to include sweet moments, earned and welcome: one with Joe, a cat and Viennese sausages; another with a rendition of the childhood classic “Goodnight Moon.”
In short, Mayor skillfully transports us to a literary world very much like today’s Vermont and New Hampshire, with characters we care about, villains who deserve justice, and a plot that pulls us on. Yes, you could start with the first in the series, but this novel can stand alone, as well. “Fall Guy” is perfect for fall.
“Fall Guy” went on sale Tuesday. It is available at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, where Archer Mayor will be speaking and autographing copies of his book on Saturday at 6 p.m.