30 years of crime solving: Archer Mayor unveils his 30th Joe Gunther novel

  • Mystery novelist Archer Mayor, who draws on his own experience as a death investigator, EMT and detective in southern Vermont, has now written 30 books in his Joe Gunther series. His newest title is “Bomber’s Moon.” Photo courtesy of Archer Mayor

  • Mystery novelist Archer Mayor, who draws on his own experience as a death investigator, EMT and detective in southern Vermont, has now written 30 books in his Joe Gunther series. His newest title is “Bomber’s Moon.” Photo courtesy of Archer Mayor

  • The title of Archer Mayor’s new novel references the WWII nighttime bombing campaign over Germany, in which a bright moon enabled Allied planes to see their targets — but also allowed German defenders to see them.

  • The Joe Gunther mystery series has sometimes ranged outside Vermont; 2012’s “Paradise City” was set largely in Northampton and the Valley.

  • Archer Mayor, who lives outside Brattleboro, makes the Vermont landscape and its weather — mud in spring, snow and often brutal cold in winter — a key part of his novels. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/24/2019 9:46:29 AM

Vermont: a land of rolling hills and valleys marked by picturesque farms, stunning fall foliage, skiing and maple syrup. Where healthy, vibrant people enjoy a variety of outdoor recreation, and pastoral beauty and quiet deliver peace of mind.

That’s the tourist description, anyway. In Archer Mayor’s long-running mystery series featuring detective Joe Gunther, the Green Mountain state has plenty of rough edges — up to and including cold-blooded murder.

But it’s a challenge that Gunther, the head of the fictional Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI), has been up to for some time now — three decades, to be precise. And just as summer follows spring and fall follows summer, Mayor has produced a new book in the series every year, keeping Gunther and his crew in readers’ hearts and minds.

His latest, “Bomber’s Moon,” is the 30th book in the series, and it’s got all the stuff critics and readers alike have come to admire over the years: intricate plot and good pacing, likable (and not so likable) characters, dry humor, a real feel for the landscapes and weather of Vermont, and a realistic look at how police operate. As the New York Times has written, “Archer Mayor’s Vermont police procedurals are the best thing going.”

That’s no surprise. Mayor, who lives outside Brattleboro, is a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and he’s also been a police detective and a volunteer firefighter/EMT, as well as a host of other things, over the years.

As he told the Gazette in a 2012 interview, he’s been able to draw on that experience directly for his books. His writing, he said at the time, has also been “a good therapy” for him — a means to decompress from some of the more horrible crimes he’s had to examine, especially sexual abuse of children.

Mayor, who will read from “Bomber’s Moon” on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, has also kept his series fresh by working current trends and developments into the books. “Bomber’s Moon,” for instance, examines the opioid crisis and sexual harassment; two young professional women, Sally Kravitz and Rachel Reiling, neither of whom are with the police, also serve as central characters in the narrative.

In addition, the series has been around long enough that Mayor can reintroduce some of his characters from past novels. Sally Kravitz, for instance, first appeared in 2011’s “Tag Man” as a precocious teenage girl with an unconventional upbringing who — in a nod to the Valley, where Gunther set his 2012 book, “Paradise City” — attends Deerfield Academy.

The source of Sally’s unconventional upbringing — her enigmatic father, Dan Kravitz, a central figure in “Tag Man” — also returns in “Bomber’s Moon,” where his past appears at first blush to collide with the strange doings of another character in the new novel.

Behind the postcards

For those not familiar with the series, a short background: Joe Gunther is the former chief of the detective bureau of the Brattleboro PD and now heads the VBI, a small unit of experienced detectives called in to investigate the state’s more mysterious and high-profile crimes. Alongside him is the hard-bitten Willy Kunkle, a wounded war veteran; Kunkle’s young wife, Sammie Martens; and Lester Spinney, an older cop like Gunther.

In an early scene in “Bomber’s Moon,” Joe & Co. are called in for an assist by police in Bellows Falls, a rather rundown town about 25 miles north of Brattleboro, where a local heroin dealer has been found dead with a knife wound in his chest. Suspicion quickly falls on another lowlife, Brandon Leggatt, a friend and partner of sorts of the dead dealer. But Leggatt insists he had nothing to do with the homicide, and he appears to be telling the truth.

The VBI is also looking into a series of strange break-ins to luxury homes in the area by someone with the technical know-how to get past expensive security systems; the thief, who goes by the nom de plume “Alex B. Robbin,” then makes off with computers that he ransacks for personal information.

Could these incidents be related? It’s not clear, but VBI members are not the only ones interested in learning more. Rachel Reiling, a photojournalist with a local, hollowed-out newspaper, the Brattleboro Reformer, is asked by her editor to look for investigative stories, and she decides to seek out the mysterious break-in artist. She also makes contact with Sally Kravitz, now a private investigator, to see how the two might work together in some way on this and other cases.

The portraits of Sally and Rachel make for one of the bigger appeals of “Bomber’s Moon.” Both had previously witnessed violence close up, Mayor writes, but while Rachel still seems pretty “lighthearted and optimistic, Sally was made of darker, more brooding stuff,” making her guarded at first about sharing anything with Rachel.

The new novel examines the tension that can flare between journalists and cops when it comes to reporting on crime. Gunther is in a particularly tricky position here, as Rachel is the daughter of his romantic partner, Beverly Hillstrom, Vermont’s chief medical examiner. He likes Rachel and wants her to succeed as a journalist, but he also needs to draw clear lines about what he can share with her.

Yet Joe also rejects “the conventional law enforcement attitude about newspeople” — that they are essentially adversaries, or at least a nuisance, who must be kept at arm’s length as much as possible. In fact, “Bomber’s Moon” gives a pretty strong plug for the importance of local journalism for smaller communities like Brattleboro.

The story soon grows murkier as another murder takes place — just as a third person, an elderly man who might have information pertaining to the death of the drug dealer, suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances. Soon a private school in the area, where some of the wealthy students evidently have a taste for drugs, emerges as a “place of interest,” and the VBI, Sally and Rachel are all drawn into taking a closer look.

Yet as in past Gunther novels, there are no blazing gun battles or 100-mph car chases here. The focus is on cops doing shoe-leather work: canvassing Bellows Falls for evidence, brainstorming about details they might be missing, figuring out the best way to interview people. There’s plenty of sardonic humor as well: “I love people,” says the acerbic Willy Kunkle about one not-too-bright suspect. “They’re so consistently inclined to shoot themselves in the foot.”

As well, Mayor writes convincingly about Vermont’s often harsh and fickle weather and the gritty day-to-day life beyond the postcards, like a sagging triple-decker house whose lobby contains “a virtual cloud of overheated, fetid, uncirculated air, all telling of too many unwashed bodies inhabiting the same space. Ahead was a battered stairway, and scarred apartment doors to each side.”

Yet that grittiness is also one of the trademarks of Mayor’s books. A short passage in the new novel aptly summarizes the theme: “Vermont, for all its activism, beauty, and romantic appeal, remained at its core hardscrabble, tourist-dependent, thinly populated, and small in size. Which helped explain its frugality and historically fierce pride.”

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

Archer Mayor will read from and sign copies of “Bomber’s Moon” on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. To register for the free event, visit odysseybks.com/event/rsvp.

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