Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther Novels

I recently stumbled across a trove of Vermont mystery novels in my local library in Columbia, MO and so indulged in two of the recent installments.

Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels are a long-running mystery series, with the first book published more than thirty years ago. The series follows the career of the Vermont detective Joe Gunther and his motley crew of colleagues, Sammie Martens, her partner Willy Kunkle, an acerbic former sniper, and Lester Spinney, tracking them through ups, downs, children, and breakups such that reading them is a comfort akin to spending time with old friends.

Gunther begins the series as a detective in the Brattleboro police department, but by the recent stories he his an investigator with the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, giving him jurisdiction throughout the state. The relationship between Joe and now-governor Gail Zigman is ancient history and the one between him and the chief Medical Examiner Beverly Hillstrom fresh and Willy and Sam have a kid old enough to walk, but such is life.

Each book follows one or two cases that mirror major events making headlines in Vermont. As such, Mayor does a particularly good job of evoking a sense of place––another reason that I come back to these books for comfort when this Vermont-born reader is feeling a bit nostalgic.

Every long-running series goes through its ups and downs and some of the recent stories constitute a bit of a slump, though I have not read them in either an exhaustive or chronological manner. They were perfectly adequate, but tended to emphasize some social issue––e.g. the sexuality of the governor in The Company She Kept (2015)––rather than following a compelling case.

After recently reading Three Can Keep A Secret (2013) and Presumption of Guilt (2016), I have to amend my assessment of the recent books. These two novels share a primary interest in juxtaposing “old Vermont” and “new Vermont.”

Three Can Keep a Secret takes place in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irene when a patient at the state Psychiatric hospital commonly known as “The Governor” disappears and a seventeen year old coffin filled with rocks comes to light. The patient, as it turns out, had indeed been governor-for-a-day in the 1970s while a young woman working in Montpelier, only to soon be institutionalized. Joe and his team follow an investigation that, more than a criminal case, resembles archival research into Vermont’s recent past. What they find is a glimpse into a social ring centered on the “Catamount Club,” a group conservative men who used to run the state.

Similarly, Presumption of Guilt follows an inquiry into a body buried in concrete that comes to light during the disassembly of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant. The body was obviously buried during the during the plant’s construction c.1970, but leads back to an old missing persons case and exposes the unsavory origins of a prominent local company.

Neither of these books is among the best of Mayor’s work, which is, in my opinion, The Dark Root (1994), but their meditation on Vermont’s progressive reputation and its conservative past gave them more substance than some. The order of these books suggests that this reflection does not mark a new turn in the series, but rather that this facet of the setting that has always been in the background sometimes bubbles to the surface.

This series fills a very particular niche for me. Mayor has done an admirable job developing these characters over more than twenty five novels. I am genuinely pleased to watch Willy and Sam’s child grow up and for the relationship between Joe and Beverly, but they are compelling as old-fashioned heroes. That is, good people (even Willy for all of his demons) doing good in the world. But this would only take the series so far. Where Mayor is particularly good is in capturing the setting. These novels feel to me like the Green Mountain State. For me this means indulging in nostalgia, but for anyone who wants a taste, they could do a lot worse.

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I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and have begun David Brewer’s The Greek War of Independence.

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