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.

Broken Harbor

In every way there is, murder is chaos. Our job is simple, when you get down to it: we stand against that, for order.

I remember this country back when I was growing up…Sometime since then, we start turning feral. Wild got into the air and its spreading. Watch the packs of kids roaming inner-city estates, mindless and brakeless as baboons, looking for something or someone to wreck. Watch the businessmen shoving past pregnant women for a seat on the train…Everything that stops us being animals is eroding, washing away like sand, going and gone.

The final step into feral is murder.


It could be the setup for a riddle. There are four bodies in a well-maintained (but for the holes in the wall) house with in a cheaply-built and never-completed residential subdivision. The dead children in their beds have the look of angelic peace, while the husband and wife lie next to each other in a pool of blood, both covered in cuts from an absent knife. The doors show no sign of forced entry. How did they die?

Enter the Dublin Murder Squad. Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy’s reputation for competence comes at a cost: he catches the toughest cases and the most trainees. Right now he has both. With the rookie Richie Curran in tow, Kennedy begins an investigation that takes him to the scene of the crime in Broken Harbor, a town outside Dublin now called Brianstown that holds deeply-buried secrets for the Kennedy family.

The case at first seems open-and-shut; dad did it. Despite his brash reputation, Scorcher plays the odds and this is what the odds say, particularly in the wake of an economic collapse. But the clues don’t quite add up. They can’t find the knife; not all of the wounds could have been self-inflicted; neighbors say the Spains recently started acting strangely, but friends say they were the perfect family; the computer’s history and hard drive have been wiped; searchers find a roost where it seems a voyeur watched the family. Detectives Kennedy and Curran start unraveling the mystery of what causes a perfect, loving family to snap.

Their inquiry receives a big break when Jenny Spain wakes up, but her answers only lead to more questions.

Broken Harbor is narrated in first person from Mike Kennedy’s point of view. This device gives insight into his personality—that he likes to keep control, that he follows the rules, that he is competent in a way that rubs coworkers the wrong way—and provides grounds for plot twists when there are developments in the case he cannot control. Moreover, it lends weight to the blending of the two plot arcs playing out simultaneously, the case and the events of his youth in Broken Harbor that intrude upon the the narrative when his younger sister Dina, a young woman with a mental illness, makes demands on his time.

Not a lot happens in Broken Harbor, and yet it is a meaty book, its brevity of plot more than compensated for by the psychological depth of characterization. Kennedy in particular chews scenery as he works the case, interrogates witnesses, and reflects on his limits in the case. At the same time, the more that the layers are pulled back from the picture perfect family of the Spains, the more superficial that image becomes. They become a family stuck in the past and flailing against the impossibility of a future during the economic collapse of 2007.

I love a good detective story, and Broken Harbor transcends the limits of that particular genre. French revels in the little details, such as making it abundantly clear that there are legitimately beefs people have with Scorcher even while the reader is embedded in his point of view and therefore predisposed to side with him. I didn’t get the same sense of place that I often go to mystery novels for, but French more than compensates with a gripping psychological drama that, if anything, is too unrelenting for all of the parties involved.

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Next up, I picked up Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven on the strength of a Max Temkin’s recommendation on a recent podcast. It is a delicately interwoven tale about the fallout from a cataclysmic pandemic that hasn’t grabbed me the way I hoped.

The Dogs of Riga – Henning Mankell

The amassing of facts and the establishing of a chain of proof was so very much more complicated against the shadowy backdrop of a totalitarian state

It is 1991 and the ripples of the momentous change that would sweep across Eastern Europe are beginning to be felt in the Baltic. The first wave crashes onto the Swedish shore when a lifeboat containing the bodies of two Eastern European men is found on a beach on a cold winter morning. The case is given to Detective Kurt Wallander, whose team traces the men to Latvia. Wallander closes the case with the aid of Major Karlis Liepa of the Latvian police, but when Liepa is killed upon returning to Riga, Wallander finds himself drawn into deadly competitions, between a condor and a lapwing in the police force, and between the police and nationalist dissidents in the country at large.

Since The Dogs of Riga is a mystery, I hesitate to go into too much detail about its plot, but, as the second in the Wallander series, I can focus on Wallander and why I found him to be successful as the central character. Wallander is poured out of a mold labelled “detective.” He lives alone, with an estranged wife, grown daughter, and father in a retirement home, and he wants to be done with police work. Wallander does not share some of the worst detective traits like drugs, alcohol, and a toxic personality, but isolating him lead to a similar effect. Equally important, Wallander is a competent detective, as everyone recognizes, and has been on the force a long time, but he nevertheless feels completely out of his depth, continually asking himself what his now-deceased partner Rydberg would do. These combinations of divergent characteristics, combined with specific details such as the love of classical music, give depth to Wallander and propel the story by making him simultaneously uncertain and capable—a perfect pairing in a mystery. The Dogs of Riga is the second book in the series, so it is possible that some of these character traits were established in the first one, but they were more than satisfactory as introduced here.

So, did The Dogs of Riga work as a mystery? The international nature of the story sometimes made it seem as though Wallander was being yanked through events rather than unravelling a mystery, and the ultimate reveal takes the form of villainous gloating over a “doomed” victim. Likewise, it is worth wondering how much the story relies on the limitations of technology to keep up the suspense. But for all that, the story had a way of sucking the reader in, getting caught up at the intersection of multiple different plots along with Wallander. It is fair to regard The Dogs of Riga as being of its time with regard to technology and more, but the specificity that Mankell writes into Baltic at the twilight of the Soviet Union makes the read that much more compelling. I can easily see myself reading another book in the Wallander series.

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Next up, I am almost through Chuck Klosterman’s But What if We’re Wrong, a piece of cultural criticism that tries to think about how we think about the past and applying those ideas to thinking about the future.

To Each His Own – Leonardo Sciascia

“But,” he said to himself, “Sicily and maybe all Italy is full of likable people who should have their heads chopped off.”

To Each His Own is the second novel I’ve read by the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia, the first being The Day of the Owl. Despite being radically different stories, the two novels have certain similarities. Both are mysteries set in small town Sicily and both cases center on the exploitation of power by shadowy family organizations that may or may not be the mafia, depending on who is talking. However, unlike The Day of the Owl, To Each His Own is told through the lens of a native Sicilian.

The story opens when the town pharmacist receives a death threat in the mail. He is disturbed, but writes it off as a prank and continues with his plan to go hunting with his friend Dr. Roscio. Neither man returns home, but their bodies and the animals they killed are later found. The police investigation quickly stalls, but the case attracts the attention of Professor Paolo Laurana, a teacher and literary critic who is particularly captured by the death threat, which is made up of newspaper clippings that include the word “Unicuique” (suum): to each his own.

Laurana’s investigation continues around his school duties, starting with the provenance of the death threat. Slowly, though, his suspicions are transferred onto the death of Dr. Roscio, who had recently took an emergency trip to Rome and is married to Luisa the beautiful niece of Dean Rosello. Although Dean Rosello is a local pastor, he is both the spiritual and terrestrial head of household for a family that owns vast tracts of land in and around the city and protected his brothers’ widows, raising their children, including Luisa and another Rosello, as though they were his own, ensuring that his family members married well and received influential posts in local government. Despite the police honing in on the clues that point to the pharmacist being responsible for the death of the two men, Laurana believes that there is something shady about this family and proceeds to become entangled in the the web he is trying to unravel.

I liked To Each His Own better than The Day of the Owl. The latter story is an earlier work and is still a powerful critique of mafia culture, but was too much on the nose. To Each His Own is still an inconclusive story and touches on the same themes, but does so obliquely, which, in my opinion, allows the main narrative to thrive in its own right in a way that The Day of the Owl sometimes did not.

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I have finished The Tattered Cloak, a series of short stories by the Paris-based Russian emigré Nina Berberova, and am now reading John Scalzi’s serial novel The End of All Things.

The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett

The first, finest, and most famous adventure of Nick and Nora Charles, involving an unknown number of “perfect” crimes and two lovely girls fighting over Nick–and Nora never losing her cool.

One of the things I am most pleased with my reading for this year is getting back into reading quality mystery and noir fiction. A couple weeks ago I found two classic Dashiell Hammett books in a used book store, one of those being The Thin Man.

Nick Charles is a former private eye now in private industry on the West Coast, but is back in his old stomping grounds of New York with his beautiful young wife Nora. Technically, they are there on business, but really just there to drink. While out on the town, Nick’s detective past comes back into his life when he is greeted by the beautiful* young Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client, the inventor Clyde Wynant. Her father is missing, and Nick ends up in touch with Herbert Macauley, the lawyer with power of attorney over the Wynant estate, who enlists his help in finding out who killed Clyde Wynant’s secretary. The bulk of the book is spent going in circles as Nick resists getting drawn into the tangle of hostile relationships that traps the Wynants (including mom Mimi and brother Gilbert), but nevertheless solves the case.

[* He describes her as “small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory.”]

I liked The Thin Man. It could have done a little bit better a job foreshadowing the dramatic turn at the end, but that was a minor issue. The story was well-paced and the reveal was satisfactory. The main thing that jumped out at me was the issue of gender, though I was willing to make some allowances for its age. The book cover implied that one of the exciting features of Nick Charles is that he is the object of women throwing himself at him and his powers of observation as a private eye gives him excuse to look at women. Despite my initial eye-roll at the women throwing themselves at Nick, it actually made some sense. The first woman is Dorothy, who was fascinated by Nick when she was twelve and is now a twenty-year-old socialite whose youthful crush is reignited particularly when drunk; the second is her mother Mimi, who was less believable as a flirtatious and “crazy” woman. However, the reason I came around to the dynamics was Nora Charles. More than staying cool, she has a relationship with Nick where they both tease each other about people who flirt with them and Nick never strays. More than that, Nora is not the experienced gumshoe that Nick is, but she is clever, clear-eyed, and talented.

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I am still behind one review, having also finished The Dark Tower. I’m going to start reading something new later today, but haven’t decided yet what that book will be.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured. Even in the more casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I finished nearly a week ago, is an idiosyncratic, alternate history mystery novel. The District of Sitka, an autonomous region adjacent Alaska, is the temporary safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. Temporary haven dragged on, for some sixty years, but now Reversion is looming. Although there was an abortive attempt to establish the country of Israel, most of the world’s Jews chose the cold safety of Sitka, which is became a densely populated city composed of widely disparate people from all over the world, loosely unified by the common language of Yiddish. Reversion, and the likelihood that most citizens of Sitka will not be allowed to remain, has tensions running high.

Meyer Landsmann, for the time being a homicide detective with Sitka police, is a mess. He is an alcoholic, divorced, living in a slum of a hotel and without either family or prospects after Reversion, and now his ex-wife Bina has been placed as his immediate superior, tasked with closing all open cases. But he is barely prepared for the mess he finds himself in when one of the residents of his neighbors, a heroin addict and former chess prodigy, is murdered and his new chief summarily closes the case. But Landsman becomes obsessed and, with the help of his partner Berko Shemets, chases every possible clue anyway and soon discovers that the dead man was one of the Verbover clan, an ultra-orthodox crime syndicate that is, oddly, the only group unconcerned with pending Reversion, and was widely thought to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, a potential messiah. This case leads Landsman into a tangled web of conspiracies that expose the seedy underbelly of the Jewish communities in Sitka.

I put down The Yiddish Policeman’s Union simultaneously enamored of the book and unsure that I want to read any of Chabon’s other novels.This book is remarkably idiosyncratic in a way that reminded me of a cross between the best of Joseph Heller and of Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, but with the atmosphere of noir. It actually took me a while to get into YPU, what with its treatment of a radically different post-World War Two world (for instance, the war ends after Berlin is destroyed with a nuclear bomb) as utterly normal, its frequent deployment of yiddish phrases found in a glossary, and that it extremely particular in its references. None of these are bad and I found that once I got into the book it was both refreshing and provocative, making it fully deserving of its accolades, but that initial buy-in took time.

At the outset, YPU seemed like a clever detective story with the window-dressing of a humanizing story about chess fanatics and the backdrop of momentous changes, but it is so much more. Chabon builds by drips and hints a rich world that, in the best noir style, is filled with characters, each of which with their own motivations. At the heart of this seething, tangled mess are the little relationships, with Meyer Landsman the broken cop who lives for his job and is kept on his feet by people who, for better and for worse, care about him while he seeks some measure of salvation in caring for the young man killed in his building.

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Next up, I finished reading André Malraux’s The Conquerors about the 1925 revolution in Hong Kong and just started Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. How is that for a mouthful? I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I am struggling to get into.