Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Joe Gunther's 21st Appearance: RED HERRING by Archer Mayor

Readers of this Vermont-based police procedural series often develop favorites among the characters who support Joe Gunther, now head of the (imagined) Vermont Bureau of Investigation, or VBI. There's spunky Sammie Martens, who proves over and over that a woman can shoulder her share of tough investigations. And Willy Kunkle, Joe's most difficult officer and enduring complication, with his withered arm and bitter soul. Here's Joe's description of him from RED HERRING, coming out in October:
Willy was the unit wild card. Committed and tenacious, he was also a recovering alcoholic, a crippled ex-military sniper, and a PTSD survivor who saw every rule as a suggestion. They had never lost a case because of his unorthodox methods, but most observers felt that was merely a matter of time.

His results were his saving grace. No matter how he did what he did -- or how many people he pissed off in the process -- Willy Kunkle brought home the goods, and he did it cleanly; or maybe just without ever being caught.
Then there's Lester Spinney, a sensible investigator who helps balance the team. And there are familiar characters from Joe's personal life: his aging mother (now in a wheelchair), his former long-time girlfriend Gail Zigman, and his current flame, bar owner Lyn Silva. After so many books, they feel like family.

RED HERRING opens with a shocking, violent death of an apparently nice and responsible administrative assistant to a trucking firm, Doreen Ferenc. Investigating the scene and Ferenc's past are routine for Joe and his group. What's not routine, though, is the attention they're getting: Gail Zigman's political hunger has blossomed in her current campaign for governor. And since the rape she endured while living with Joe is being openly discussed, along with her long connection with him, the public scrutiny that the campaign commands keeps spotlighting Joe. Whether Doreen has been raped or not, there's plenty of connection for the press in seeing Joe on the case.

Then it gets worse: Two more deaths, staged as artfully as Doreen's, begin to look like murders by the same criminal. Can Joe make enough progress on all three cases at once, to be able to look effective when the news media inevitably find out what's at stake? And will Gail have to take a stand against him? Where does all this media circus leave Lyn, as she questions what it would mean for Gail to be governor -- and Joe's boss?

If you caught any of Archer Mayor's book tour for the 20th Joe Gunther, The Price of Malice, you already know from the author that for number 21, the VBI will borrow some high-tech investigative procedures from the Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island. (That's not meant as a spoiler -- you'll see it in the book blurbs.) But going high-tech also has its risks for the value of the evidence, since it may not be admissible in a courtroom -- it's too new, too complex. Mayor uses some nice devices to explain the process, from Joe's bafflement to the kindness of various scientists -- but in the long run, it's almost a distraction from the critical interactions going on among Joe's co-workers and friends. This is a truly character-driven novel, with a plot that pushes and pulls the people involved. Part of the ramping tension in the book comes from the niceness of Lyn Silva, for instance, because it seems so unfair that her relationship with Joe keeps on costing her so much. As Joe says,
She knew when to ask questions and when to just let him think. She was a pragmatist generally, having handled her share of turmoil while still just shy of middle age. Divorced, she had an adult daughter, one marginally functioning brother with a criminal record, and a mother who sat all day watching TV. Another brother and her father had been murdered by smugglers back in Maine. Lyn Silva had earned her survivor merit badge.
Eventually the high-tech data and Willy and Sam's dogged pursuit of interviews and background will lead Joe's team to the probably killer. But then the game changes, because if someone is willing to murder, they've got a share of control of the events, as long as the people around them aren't as violent or crazy as they are. Ghastly results follow -- with a shocking sequence of final events in the book.

As with all good narratives, it's the way the conclusion erupts from all the groundwork ahead of time that decides the merit of the book. And in this one, Archer Mayor has a winner. Check his tour schedule at (where you can also read the first chapter of RED HERRING). You may want to connect in person for this one.

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