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Archer Mayor sets ‘Paradise City’ action in Northampton, surrounding communities

  •  JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Author Archer Mayor with Northampton Police Chief Russ Sienkiewicz outside police headquarters. A fictitious version of the local police force figures in Mayor's new book.
  • Author Archer Mayor in downtown Northampton Wednesday.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

Joe Gunther is one well-traveled detective.

From Chicago to Washington, from Canada to New York City, the hero of Archer Mayor’s long-running crime fiction series has sometimes had to range far from his native Vermont to solve mysteries and put bad guys behind bars.

Now, in the 23rd book of his series, Mayor, who lives outside Brattleboro, Vt., has brought Gunther to the Pioneer Valley, where the lead investigator for the fictional Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI) must try to penetrate a shadowy Northampton operation dealing in stolen jewelry — an operation that may be connected to a pair of homicides.

In “Paradise City,” which has just been released, Mayor has tweaked the city’s image as a groovy haven for artists, college students and hipsters in general. In his telling, Northampton also has a small but seedy underbelly in which slave laborers are forced to alter stolen jewelry for resale and seemingly upright citizens have something to hide.

But it’s also an affectionate portrait of the city, with references to real locations and a profile of downtown that’s instantly recognizable. The fast-paced plot in “Paradise City” also extends to other familiar Valley landmarks, such as the Summit House on Mount Holyoke at Skinner State Park in Hadley and the Cold War-era U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command underground bunker on Bare Mountain in Hadley that’s now used for library storage.

“I love this area,” said Mayor, 62, in a recent interview at the Bulletin. “I’ve spent a good amount of time coming through here over the years.” And, he noted, Northampton has an interesting relationship with Brattleboro, with the latter town affecting something of Northampton’s artistic vibe, but on a smaller scale.

“It’s a bit of a wannabe Northampton,” Mayor joked. “A lot of people in Brattleboro like to come down here for a taste of the ‘big city.’”

That connection prompted his interest in setting the new book predominantly in Northampton and the Valley, the first time that’s happened in the Joe Gunther series, although a few of the books have briefly touched down in this region.

Mayor said he wouldn’t have been able to research the setting for “Paradise City” without the help he received from numerous people in the area, including Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz and officers in the Northampton Police Department, former Mayor Clare Higgins and Smith College Vice President for Finance & Administration Ruth Constantine.

Mayor’s “partner in crime,” Northampton resident Margot Zalkind, who handles marketing and publicity for the author, arranged introductions and interviews for Mayor.

“Russ and the Northampton police were just great, Ruth and Clare were a big help, and Margot gave me a comfortable place to stay,” said Mayor, who rode along with a couple of city police officers on their patrols. “They really helped me get the lay of the land and a feel for the town’s history, how things shake out here.”

Some Northampton officials say they’ve enjoyed the book and are happy to see the city used as a setting for it — with a few caveats. Mayor David J. Narkewicz, who spoke at a recent book release party for Mayor at the cafe The Roost in Northampton, said in reality, “There’s no crime in Northampton.

“Any crime depicted took place in the Higgins administration,” Narkewicz said to widespread laughter, as Higgins, another guest at the book release party, joined in.

A varied resume

Mayor knows something about real crime. In compiling a varied resume that’s included stints as a journalist, scholarly editor, theater photographer and political advance man, he’s also been a police officer and medical photographer. And for much of the past decade, he’s been a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and a detective for the sheriff’s office in Windham County in southeast Vermont.

Mayor has used that experience to fashion a mystery series the New York Times calls “the best thing going” when it comes to police procedures. His books have also won acclaim for their dialogue, pacing and dry humor. In a review of “Tag Man,” Mayor’s last novel, the Associated Press wrote, “His characters are real, the things that happen to them are logical, and the plot is believable.”

Mayor says writing is also “a good therapy” for him — a means to decompress from some of the more horrible crimes he has to examine, particularly sexual abuse of children.

“Paradise City” doesn’t explore that sort of crime, but it offers its share of menace. In Vermont, Gunther and his team on the VBI are trying to connect the dots between a series of break-ins across the state. Meanwhile, an elderly woman in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood is murdered when she stumbles upon a trio of thieves in her tony apartment.

As they pursue their separate investigations, Gunther’s team and a Boston police detective discover the incidents could be related: Word on the street is that someone very powerful in Northampton is paying good money to purchase stolen jewelry and antiques.

Gunther calls his old friend Dan Siegel, Northampton’s veteran police chief, and before long Vermont, Boston, and Northampton investigators have teamed up to track the elusive jewelry operation. As the action ranges across the Valley, Holyoke police are drawn in as well after one of the Beacon Hill thieves turns up dead in a stolen car in the Paper City.

Gunther & Co. must deal with another wild card: The vengeful granddaughter of the murdered Boston woman, unhappy with police response to her grandmother’s death, is also in Northampton trying to find the killers, possibly jeopardizing the investigation — and her own life in the process.

A sketch of the city

Along the way, Mayor has some fun sketching the city’s downtown scene. When Gunther first drives onto Main Street, he sees ordinary looking people “overwhelmingly outnumbered by the young, the unusual, and the downright strange. Big Bird could have strolled the street with nary a reaction beyond a passing thumbs-up or a supportive smile.”

Mayor tried out a number of other locations in the area as possible settings for scenes from the book. The Summit House on Mount Holyoke “was a longtime attraction for me,” he said. “Every time I’ve been down this way, I see that big white building glowing up there. Now it finally gets involved.”

And after reading a local news article about the Cold War-era Strategic Air Command bunker, also in the Holyoke Range and now used for the Five College Book Depository, Mayor was intrigued. “I had to put that in the book,” he said.

Other references are more oblique but can be detected by the attentive reader. Mayor says his characters are “entirely fictional” and not based on real personalities. But he likes to play with real names. Dan Siegel, after all, is awfully close to Don Siegel, a Smith College sport psychology professor and pilot who gave Mayor an airborne look at the region — something Mayor likes to do when scouting new settings for a book “to see how a town sits on the planet.”

There’s also a character named Ruth Constantine who has no connection to Smith College, but who might make people familiar with the real Ruth Constantine “approach her a little more carefully,” Mayor joked.

Sienkiewicz, the Northampton chief, says he rarely reads crime fiction or watches TV cop shows. But Mayor’s new novel, he said at the book release party, “is a real good read, with great writing.”

But, Sienkiewicz added to a round of laughter, no jewelry-stealing cabal could operate under the noses of the real Northampton PD: “We would have been on top of it.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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