Monday, July 04, 2011

Maine Crime Novel: TRESPASSER by Paul Doiron

Paul Doiron's debut crime novel, The Poacher's Son, ripped its way onto the best shelves here at Kingdom Books like a gust of forest-scented wind and rain. Mike Bowditch, a Maine game warden with lots in his favor -- a fierce sense of the woods, independent thinking, energy, sufficient stubbornness to keep pursuing a case or a criminal -- is also the son of one of the state's most notorious poachers: hunters who disregard the law blatantly, in order to shoot (and usually eat) deer and other wild game out of season or without a license to do so. Mike's efforts to prove himself in the law enforcement community pitted him against his own father, while simultaneously trying to figure out whether there were parts of his father he could still embrace, and wondering how much of his dad was in him, despite his training and choices.

Now Doiron's second novel, TRESPASSER, sets Mike against his own best and worst selves, as he hunts for the murderer of a young woman from Massachusetts who struck a deer at night with her car, then accepted a ride from someone and vanished from the scene. His relationship with his girlfriend is on rough ground due to his priorities -- no matter how nicely she asks, he rarely makes it home from work on time even for guests he truly likes, like his old friend Charley Stevens, a retired warden pilot who stands as a better parent figure to him than Mike's own family can provide. And between the guilt and shame he feels about himself and his father, and habits of "self-medicating" that keep unbalancing his thinking, Mike's making some awful choices that keep setting him up for moments when his colleagues are on "the other side":
In the sharp, cold air, my senses returned. I found my cell phone in my jacket pocket. I started to key in the direct number for the Knox County dispatcher, when I heard a car coming down the drive behind us. Flashing blue lights made hallucinatory patterns in the trees. The a blinding spotlight snapped on, pinning us both in place. An electronically amplified voice boomed out, "Don't move."
Mike's discovery of one death, then another, take place with such poor decisions around them that he's soon in nearly as much trouble as the criminals, minor and major, around him. And his home life is going downhill, fast, in spite of Charley Stevens trying to help him figure out how domestic partners show love and support to each other.

Doiron spins a masterful tail, with flawless plot twists that range from police procedure to jailhouse life to managing the rigors of back-country law enforcement. He gives a great picture of the way multiple law agencies interact -- Maine's game wardens do much more than chase off-season hunters or over-eager anglers -- and of how judgment and choices can progress downhill, building momentum from each other. Mike's a complex character, and so are the people around him, whether living in trailers or teaching school or (ouch) supervising Mike.

My only (small) quibble with this book tackles the title, which is demonstrably linked to Mike's religious training as a child -- "forgive us our trespasses" -- and lack of belief, but never quite rings true as part of a Mike's fox-hole atheism. "There are no atheists in foxholes," goes the old expression, and Doiron sets Mike up in several situations to consider whether "God" has any meaning and whether the chaplain to the game warden services is worth talking with. But the references sometimes seem like surface after-thoughts. When Mike wrestled with father-son "stuff" in the first book, the pain and complexity came through loud and clear; in TRESPASSER, though, Mike's self-destructive choices cascade so rapidly that it's hard to believe he's buying into deeper self-awareness or even savoring the woodland life he's there to defend.

But that's indeed small potatoes, compared to the taut, compelling plot of this second crime novel, and I'm committing to collecting Doiron's books, hoping there will be many more to come. Mike Bowditch and Charley Stevens are unforgettable characters, people I want living in my community. (Actually, I think they do.)

Doiron's books have already been compared to those of C. J. Box; William Kent Krueger, Nevada Barr, and Steve Hamilton belong on the list of comparables, too, for the feel of TRESPASSER. Highly recommended -- and Dave and I are honored that the author will visit Kingdom Books in November.

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