I recently discovered Archer Mayor’s mystery series starring Joe Gunther, an agent working for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. I enjoy reading crime fiction that’s well constructed and fair to the reader, so when I find an author who does that I tend to hang onto them. I’m going to be hanging onto Mayor and his series hero.
The Second Mouse (from a title given to him by his daughter, whom he thanks in the book) is actually the 17th Joe Gunther novel, so I’ve got some catching up to do, but that’s okay. I like discovering writers I hadn’t read before who have a backlog of books. That way the treasure of the find lasts much longer.
As it turns out, Mayor is an old hand at murder and mayhem. In his native state of Vermont, he also serves as a death investigator for the state medical examiner and as a volunteer fireman/EMT. I’m sure he finds plenty to write about in his everyday experiences.
The latest book begins gently, but with lots of unanswered questions, which just so happens to be my favorite way for mysteries to take shape. Joe Gunther isn’t a superhero/Clint Eastwood type of cop. He’s very human. He’s also easy to get to know and is exactly the kind of guy you want on your side when life gets messy and dangerous.
Gunther arrives on the scene of Michelle Fisher’s death just looking for something to fill in some empty hours. His long-time girlfriend of 20 years has lately broken up with him and he’s still trying to figure out what he should do about that.
He immediately gets crossways with the Vermont local policeman, who are there working the unattended death (which is a death that happens when no one is watching, and is unexpected). The officer thinks Joe is there to “poach” his case. Joe immediately allays the man’s suspicions and even offers to back out, but is asked to stay on.
As it turns out, Michelle Fisher had recently lost her husband and was getting evicted from her house by her crass father-in-law. Threatening letters from attorneys written on behalf of her father-in-law quickly bear that out. Joe isn’t satisfied with the woman’s death being purely natural, so he digs a little deeper.
In the meantime, the story moves over to Mel Martin, a local thug looking to go big. Mel, his wife Nancy, and his accomplice in crime Ellis Robbinson hijack a National Guard armory and steal two M-16s. Mel is a definite low-life and hard guy.
Mayor quickly deepens his characters, getting more into Joe’s life as he deals with his break-up and pursues his feeling that something is wrong with Michelle Fisher’s death. He asks the state medical examiner to do an autopsy but Dr. Beverly Hillstrom (a character that’s been in the series for a while) tells him she’s on a strict budget.
Going to see Hillstrom to ask for the favor more personally, Joe soon discovers that she’s being blackmailed by a petty politician with enough skeletons in the closet to outfit and orthopedic school. Joe gets sidelined taking care of the blackmailing sleazebag in a thoroughly satisfying manner, then gets Hillstrom back on the case.
As Mel Martin goes on with his scheming, his wife and partner start up an affair that threatens to explode in a particularly violent manner. Deepening those characters, the reader gets a chance to buy into them as Nancy turns out to be a woman who really needs love and Ellis is dealing with his sick mother dying of cancer.
After Hillstrom’s autopsy, Joe finds out that Michelle Fisher’s death wasn’t natural. She died of propane inhalation. The death investigation gains momentum, but it isn’t long before fate intercedes to thread that storyline in with that of Mel Martin and company. The two stories hurtle headlong to a rip-roaring conclusion.
Archer Mayor is a simple but eloquent writer. His scenes quickly advance the plot and the characters, and they’re deceptively easy to read. I found myself just cruising through the story, flipping pages long past when I should have been asleep or otherwise occupied.
People who love mysteries but haven’t given Archer Mayor and Joe Gunther a try should pick up The Second Mouse or any of the other titles. I found it easy to slip right into Gunther’s world even with this, the 17th book, and having no other experience with the writer or the hero. This is solid entertainment with a definite sense of setting and way of life.