Saturday, September 29, 2007

Archer Mayor's Tight New Police Procedural: CHAT (Joe Gunther Number 18!)

Autumn's here -- and that means it's time for the new Archer Mayor/Joe Gunther police procedural. Hurrrah!
It’s easy to confuse an author’s life with the life of his or her fictional creation. And sure, Mayor, like his Brattleboro cop character Joe Gunther, loves police work (on the side), likes to visit with his mom when he can get time, and knows what it’s like to go through a romantic disappointment and then rediscover true love.
But Gunther is a collage of people Mayor has known – he’s not a clone of the author. And when things work out for him in the plot of the latest book, it’s not necessarily a reflection of what’s going on in Mayor’s own life.
Still, I’ve got to guess that the cheerful good news that keeps erupting in this author’s life – great reviews in national papers, a new “steady” sweetheart, and a deal that’s bringing his out-of-print early work back into active paperback sales – is affecting his writing. Because his new police procedural, “Chat,” is a smooth, tight, thoroughly enjoyable read that affectionately brings back nearly all of the strong characters that populated the preceding 17 Gunther books.
For instance, Gunther’s mother and brother Leo show up at the start, and battle the nasty side effects of Joe’s long career of capturing criminals in his own backyard. His “ex,” politico Gail Zigman, finds a new role on the sidelines, as possibilities of a new and much-liked lady friend emerge for Joe.
And those crazy sidekicks Sammie Martens and Willie Kunkle cuss out each other gently, turn their fierceness on the criminals, and provide the backup that Joe’s leadership of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, the VBI, demands of them.
Plus, Mayor’s descriptions of life in Vermont continue to grace his writing, and make up part of the allure his books hold for those who dream of “God’s country.” When a dispatcher asks about his family, he’s not surprised that word of their troubles has spread: “Vermont was a small town in some ways, spread thinly across a hilly map.”
With all those great interactions packed in, “Chat” was destined to be a good novel. But a tight police procedural demands more than that. There has to be a truly nasty streak of crime; a convincing threat of violence, preferably life-threatening; and the red herrings along the way need to blend into the structure, keeping the reader from guessing the crime solution too soon but without being silly.
And Mayor has nailed it in this 300-plus-page sequel that uncovers the ragged filthy edge of Internet community. “Chat” of course refers to “chat rooms,” those anonymous pick-up bars of cyberspace where anyone can lie, lure, and lust. Intersecting pages of chat-room dialogue build with the police plot to an edgy and shocking crescendo – which, not surprisingly for Mayor, also depends on the conflicts among Vermont policing forces and the ability of well-meaning humans to draw all the efforts into effective law enforcement after all.
In real life, as in fiction, it’s not easy to pull that off: At one point in his search for the pieces that will solve the pair of murders and linked crimes in front of him, Joe fingers a problem in another police team and has to wonder whether he’ll get cooperation after being the finger pointer:
“He was all too familiar with how police departments were hotbeds of gossip, rumor, and randomly circulating tidbits. Long after this little mystery was resolved, people would be discussing what “really” happened, notwithstanding the chief’s official explanation – and that would be only if the conclusion was wholly innocent. God forbid if something untoward had actually occurred.”
Of course, it has. Just as the scraps of Internet chat build toward a dirty and not so little secret, the big tragedies of life in Joe’s world also flare and flame. People around him who have suffered as “victims” aren’t going to take it gently. Joe and his family – that is, the people he’s related to, plus the people he cares about at work – come under threat. Mayor’s and Joe’s ways of working through the darkness build to a flawless and satisfying end that lays the groundwork for sequels to come.
So if that’s the result of a happy and satisfied author, forget about the tormented stereotypes. “Chat” is a winner. I’ve already read my copy twice.
Look for the book in the shops on October 25. But if you'd like a chance to talk it over with Archer Mayor a few days before that, consider signing up for the great 2007 Kingdom Books Limited Edition Author Dinner with Mayor on Monday October 22. He'll be here at the shop -- and so will a modest stack of fresh new first editions of CHAT. See our web site ( for details.

No comments: