Monday, October 01, 2012

Archer Mayor, PARADISE CITY: Home Is Where Your Characters Solve Crimes

PARADISE CITY is the 23rd Joe Gunther investigation from Vermont author (and EMT and part-time law office and sometimes full-time cop/detective, as well as death examiner for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner) Archer Mayor. It's a treat for long-time fans of the series, because it features Joe himself, lots of time spent with that challenging curmudgeon of crime-solving Willie Kunkle (Nam vet and pretty screwed up), Sammie Martens (still loving Willie -- and even though back on the job, she's the mom to their baby), and cameo appearances by people Joe loves and hates. Yes, you'll want to read at least a few earlier books in the series to make the most of this one.

But maybe not.

Actually, the action starts on Beacon Hill in Boston and mostly takes place in Northampton, Mass., a gritty arts locale and gay-friendly, politically active city. Sure, there's a quick visit to Tucker Peak in Vermont (scene of an earlier J. G. investigation), but the crime there is quickly tied to action of the earlier chapters. And by the time the team is assembled in Northampton -- nicknamed Paradise City, as in its annual real-life Paradise City arts fair -- the team has meshed as smoothly as it ever does. The glitches are coming from the criminals, whose choices are far from smart. And before you know it, this becomes a classic combination of burglary caper (high tech version), global criminality, and steady police work. Only Willy's itchy PTSD renders that action a bit chancy!

So you can read this one alone, actually. The thing is, those who've followed the series will resonate much more deeply with paragraphs like this one, at the star of Chapter Three:
Joe Gunther paused before reaching for the phone, blinking at the darkened ceiling of the bedroom, clearing his head of sleep. Increasingly these days, when he was jarred awake, he found himself wondering less about what lay behind a call, and more about how it might come back to haunt him. He'd been finding the toll of his profession to be mounting fast and costing him dearly as of late.
Archer Mayor has taken Joe through a lot of solved crimes, but also a lot of losses, from family to lover to police force position. Joe's confronted fires and motorcycle gangs, drug barons and sinister sneaky creeps, high-tech wizards and porn princes victimizing both the rich and the homeless, and a lot of drug users at all levels of the economic spectrum. When Joe aches from those losses, we readers ache in empathy.

Mayor also does two things in PARADISE CITY that mesh with what Canadian crime fiction phenomenon Louise Penny has demonstrated: (1) rotates an investigator who "belongs" in a specific location -- in this case, Brattleboro, Vermont -- into a fresh setting, through the connections of crime across the landscape; and (2) foreshadows more personal and professional pain for Joe, which will take place in the next book (Penny is today's master of an arc of narrative that climbs through the disturbing back story of title after title; Mayor does it more delicately).

In PARADISE CITY, the linking theme among the criminals and their actions is jewelry heists. But who is behind them, and how are the highly recognizable antique items being liquidated? Joe forms a team with his nearby police associates across the Vermont/Massachusetts border. Then Willie finds a way to screw up the plans. Or does he?

There are some loose ends in this that don't quite get knitted in, like Sam's un-motherly return to duty, and an uneasy feeling that Joe doesn't quite have control of his own career, just as he's wishing he could maybe walk away from it. But then again, Mayor has shown us, time and again, that those strands will reappear in the next book as essential strands of the continued investigations.

And with that, I suppose, I've come full circle: You can read an Archer Mayor book on its own with plenty of enjoyment. But with the extra value that comes from reading all 23 in a row, why miss out on any of them? I'm marking my calendar already for fall of 2013, and number 24.

PS: If you're a Joe Gunther series reader already, you may especially enjoy -- as I do -- taking a look at the "bio" of this character, on Archer Mayor's website:

No comments: