Borderlines, by Archer Mayor

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I like mysteries. Their literary quality is often outstanding, and I always love a good puzzle. This second book in Archer Mayor’s series featuring Joe Gunther hits every mark, making it one of the best police procedurals I’ve read.

Gunther, a policeman in Brattleboro, Vermont, has been seconded to the State’s Attorney at the opposite end of the state. Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is an isolated, rural area far from the state’s scenic mountains and tourist destinations, and depressed economically, even in 1990 when this novel came out.

He’s familiar with the area, having spent childhood summers here with his aunt and uncle. He’s looking forward to time with his now-widowed Uncle Buster, whose benevolent support he could use as he wrestles with questions regarding both work and love.

In the gripping opening scene, Gunther’s journey is interrupted by an illegal shot, but he is quickly reminded that his authority as a law enforcement officer is limited in the Northeast Kingdom, which is “populated by people who had chosen to put their independence and wariness of the rest of the world above the hardships of living here.”

The pace doesn’t let up, as Gunther arrives in Gannet, the small village of his childhood summers. Ramshackle and rundown, the town allowed half of its building to be bought up by an intentional community, seen by some as a cult. Tensions between the Order and the town have grown, only to explode when a couple from Massachusetts arrives to rescue their daughter. The tension is nicely modulated, with plenty of scenes of Gunther sitting on a step with a childhood friend, walking with his uncle, or phoning his girlfriend to vary the suspense before building to a satisfying climax.

What’s best here is Gunther himself. With this character Mayor finds just the right balance of thought and action. Gunther’s quiet, unassuming voice sets him apart from sometimes brash or bragging detectives. Though there’s not a lot of soul-searching, he’s quick to acknowledge his own mistakes. We’re given all we need to perceive his sorrow at the way the village and its people have deteriorated. The loss of his childhood refuge provides shading to Julie’s story, the young woman whose parents have come to steal her from the cult.

There is one twist that seemed to come almost out of nowhere. Mystery writers have the daunting task of planting enough clues to significant plot twists so that readers think Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that? while not so many that we guess it too soon. Mayor did an excellent job of preparing for all the plot twists here, save one, noticeable only because of the superb plotting everywhere else.

In talking about the elements in fiction, plot and character are the stars. Increasingly, though, I find myself drawn to novels in which the setting is richly evoked and becomes almost another character. Mayor does that here, brilliantly. The environment he evokes helps us anticipate and understand the people in this story, all brought to life, no matter how small their role. It also charges the mood of the story.

When I was younger, the Kingdom had been much as the name implies – a magical other world, removed from the mainstream and endowed with a specialness in the minds of those who knew of it. Its topography, both rugged and cursive, could reject and embrace, kill and nurture. It was a place where land and weather ruled, where the beauty came less from the majestic mountain views found further south, and more from the perpetual surprises that lurked behind the low, ever-present hills. Even at its harshest, the Kingdom was seductive, as when its omnipotent sky darkened with boiling blue-black clouds, low slung and pregnant with threat.

Its people, like those of Gannet, clung to this mercurial terrain mostly out of choice . . . They were independent, self-supporting, proud, and generally uninterested in what was happening outside of their boundaries . . . But, obviously, the fabric of the Kingdom had begun to strain and yield.

Even now, several decades after publication, this book is a valuable resource if you want to understand the crumbling lives of the rural poor. Mayor’s insight into his fellow Vermonters is demonstrated on every page. As death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and formerly a detective and volunteer firefighter, Mayor brings the authority of real-world experience to this spellbinding tale.

Have you read one of Archer Mayor’s books? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite?

Hawke’s Discovery, by Mark Willen

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Last week I described Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients, as a restorative read, much needed after a series of books with unpleasant and untrustworthy protagonists. This week I’ve struck gold again.

Jonas Hawke, a retired lawyer in Beacon Junction, Vermont, finds himself in a moral and ethical dilemma when his son Nathan, editor of the local paper, begins investigating one of Jonas’s old cases. Nathan is intrigued by the possibility of a coverup involving the leading contender for governor in the upcoming election. A big scoop like that could lead to a job offer from a large city paper, something Nathan has been seeking for a while.

However, Jonas’s client confidentiality severely limits how far he can go in answering Nathan’s questions, much to his son’s frustration. Nathan points out Jonas’s responsibility to his fellow citizens: what if Martha Bennett wins the gubernatorial election and then is indicted for obstruction of justice?

This is just the sort of story I needed right now. I love to see ordinary people with a strong sense of integrity navigate the tricky waters of an ethical dilemma. Nathan and Jonas are not the only ones in this story with competing personal and professional responsibilities.

The mystery of what happened in that long-ago case and the various interpersonal conflicts provide tension, but the real suspense is about the characters. What course will they choose? What will the outcome be?

What I like most about this book is its subtlety. All of the characters mean well. They want to do the right thing, if they could only be sure what that is. They seem like people I know. You don’t need a villain in a story like this. We are our own worst antagonists, drifting in the dark without a map.

I recently participated in a book dissection of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. My fellow authors and I couldn’t understand why it became such a big bestseller. There were things we appreciated: a quirky and charming cast of characters and an unusual real-life setting, for example. There were things we didn’t like: such as the misleading title and the epistolary format that made all the action happen off-stage.

What we finally concluded was that it was the heart of the book that made it appeal to so many people. To quote from John J. Kelley’s summary of our discussion, while “the novel never shies away from the tragedies of life” it has “an enduring optimism that many in the group found refreshing in these uncertain times. It was an unexpected charm that surprised many of us.”

Mark Willen’s novel has the same sort of heart. While exploring the murky regions where integrity is put to the test and competing responsibilities rend us, Hawke’s Discovery gives us characters who despite their flaws are essentially good. If you’re suffering from too many stories of sociopaths, serial killers and rapists, pick up this novel. It will refresh you with its enduring optimism.

What books have you read that feature characters who seem like people you know?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.