A Real Vermont Writer

I just finished Archer Mayor’s newest release, The Second Mouse, which is book #17 in his much loved Joe Gunther series (At least here in Vermont). Every fall, he’s got a new book out, the fruits of a year’s work of writing and researching, and it’s usually a 14 week wait on the library waiting list to get one of his books.

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Gunther is the main character in the Vermont-set mystery series. Over the past seventeen or so years, he’s gone through a lot. His girlfriend was brutally raped, he’s been shot and stabbed a couple of times, gone all over the place, and remained a good guy, clear morals and all that, and is now the head of the VBI (Vermont Bureau of Investigation), or at least one of the branches of it.
This is also the fifth book that Mayor has written in the third person (To many a loyal reader’s apprehension or dismay). Prior to The Sniper’s Wife, Joe Gunther was the only character that you could really see, because it was from his perspective. Personally, I think that the approach worked better. All of my favourites, Ragman’s Memory, Bellow’s Falls (My birthplace, oddly enough), The Skeleton’s Knee, Open Season, Tucker Peak, and Occam’s Razor are all in the first person. They seem much longer and richer, (not to mention that most of them have the gorgeous woodcut covers), while the newer ones, Sniper’s Wife, Gatekeeper,
Surrogate Thief, St. Alban’s Fire and now the Second Mouse, feel much more cinematic and faster paced, while the story seems to suffer a little as a result. Not that they’re bad reads, they’re not. Mayor’s maintained a similar complexity of plot and storytelling. It’s just in the third person and the story seems to get spread out quite a bit more. The Second Mouse is like this. The first two thirds seemed to be hopelessly scattered, with the VBI squad looking into one mystery, while we watch the three villains (Nancy, Ellis and Mel) go about their own crime spree. It’s not until the end, in true Archer Mayor fashion, that everything is wrapped up, and to further the cinematic qualities, in a gunfight and climax that I could very easily see in it’s own television series. (You hear that, NBC, ABC, CBS?).
Still, the ending seemed a little disconnected, and I’m thinking of going back to re-reading the older favourites, such as Ragman’s Memory, the first one that I ever picked up, to relive the extremely tight plot and lead up. Mayor’s strengths are in his extremely complex stories, and his use of Vermont. It was nice to see this story take place almost entirely in Vermont, whereas some of his others have taken Joe and the gang out of state for a lot longer than is usual. (They stay in New England for the entire time this time around.)

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The older books just seem to have more of a Vermont feel to them. This is when Joe, Willy and Sam (the main three characters, there’s a couple others) were working for the Brattleboro PD, and much of the crime that they dealt with was more Vermont-centric. The murders were locally motivated, crimes that would take them an hour out of town, three at the most (for the occasional trip over to Burlington). In addition to being a convinent plot point for the characters being able to move around easily, it really gave the books a traditional Vermont feel, where the cops are good, the bad guys clearly at fault and the politicians and newspapers something that could be annoying. However, you can’t stop progress, and it seems that the newer Joe Gunther Books are something that’s progressing along with Vermont, becoming more modern, slick, sexy and ready to roll.
Mayor’s stories take place in Vermont, and they feel like Vermont. One of the biggest thrills is reading about the locations – Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, Montpelier, Burlington, Rutland, and any number of smaller towns that he tends to visit. Bratt. is one of the main places, and every time that I visit, I feel like I’m in the book, it really translates well.
In addition to location, Mayor’s earlier works have a very cynical view of the usual small town viewpoint that a lot of people, especially out-of-state visitors have of the place. This isn’t too surprising, considering the subject matter of the novels. Yes, we have crime, murders, drug problems, corruption and probably any other crime that is in existance. (This is not to deter anyone from visiting of course, VT’s still much safer than anywhere else.) But Mayor does show a different side to what the tourists see – and a lot of it’s fairly accurate. Much of his year goes into research, usually on topics that Mayor doesn’t know much about, and as a result, some of his books are themed. Fruits of the Poisonous Tree, for example, is about rape. Dark Root : Illegal Immigration. Borderlines : Crazy cults, Occam’s Razor : Industrial waste and corruption. Tucker Peak: The Ski Industry, Gatekeeper : The VT Heroin Highway, and so on. Because of this, a number of his books reach a level of critical acclaim here, because he works closely with law enforcement for his research. The Heroin Highway comes very close to where I live, and there’s definently some very real parts here.

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I think one of the things that I’m really struggling with is the shift in first to third person narration, because it takes some of the storytelling out of Joe’s eyes, and into everyone else’s. Along with the switch, there’s a subtle difference in the types of stories being told. While the stories told under the told person narration are genuinely Vermont stories, the ones under the third person narrration are typically larger in scale, more important, and to some extent, more relevant to the public’s eye. Not to say that a lot of the stories told under the first person narration aren’t important, they are, but they’re more personal to the character of Joe Gunther. The stories that are coming out now are more personal to Vermont as a whole, with the problems cropping up mainly as the drug problems, It’s with this change that we also have the newer, more modern covers, as well as plotlines that as mentioned before, are a little more cinematic in feel.

I really need to reread the series. And you should too.

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