Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Research and the Police Procedural: Archer Mayor and THE SECOND MOUSE

The crowd had gathered, clusters of friends claiming seats together, and a few loners staking out corners of the shop. Outside, the light was fading -- November in Vermont, dusky and gray with a hint of snow in the bank of clouds. Dave and I, knowing that Archer Mayor cuts his timing tightly, checked voicemail and e-mail to be sure there weren't any emergency messages ("I'm involved in an untimely death..."), glanced at the clock, which said a minute after four, and suddenly heard boots on the outside stairs. Exhaling in relief, I rushed to the door.

"Sorry I'm two minutes late," the author said at once, "but I'm kind of muddy and if I look a little beefy, it's the bullet-proof vest. I'll tell you all about it later."

And that was the start of the latest Kingdom Books author event, presenting the 17th Joe Gunther mystery, THE SECOND MOUSE, from Vermont's master of the police procedural, Archer Mayor.

Mayor hates to "read" from his pages, and launched into a well-tuned talk about the character interactions that prompted this latest novel. Starting with an urge to explore the "romance" between two of Gunther's police team members, edgily dangerous Vietnam vet Willy Kunkle and risk-taker Sammie Martens (she's blonde, tough, stunning when she wants to be), he paired their story and Joe Gunther's (recovering from a breakup) with a much nastier tale of three criminals. As Mayor described the writing process, he saw the two threads as the top two lines of a Y: and their eventual merging into the suspense and action of the book as the base of the letter. (I kept looking at his half-zipped bullet-proof vest and thinking, zipper.)

Volunteer firefighter, ambulance staff (EMT), and death examiner, he also recently joined the police force in the rough-and-tumble but slowly yuppifying town of Bellows Falls. Turns out, though, he had already started writing his series before all that. Now, the daily efforts become more material, clearly.

But what fascinated me was how he conducts research in, say, domestic violence, which somehow almost always enters his plots.

"I don't go to the conferences (on DV)," he said. "I go to the person who hosts the conference. And I don't interview rapists -- who'd want to give them the satisfaction of even a little extra attention? Instead, I go to the psychologist who treats hundreds of them and who knows what's going on."

That's the kind of incisive thinking and planning around each minute of his day that lets Mayor make time to write a book each year. He's about halfway into number 18 but not yet sharing its plot or title.

Oh yes, the mud, the combat boots, the bullet-proof vest? No, he wasn't being chased by a killer on his way north. But he had, in fact, been at a training with other police officers, shooting high-power ammunition and various guns, considering sniper attacks, arrests of violent perpetrators, working out demonstrations of stop, drop, shoot....

Now that's the kind of research that it takes to drive a real Vermont police procedural. THE SECOND MOUSE is a prime example.

Mayor is traveling with the sequel in his car, for moments of typing, parked at the side of the road between events around New England. Dave asked for a peek, a question Mayor admitted he knew would come from Dave, as the author grinned and said firmly, "No!" Well, that's okay, we can wait a bit to find out what's next; we want to chew on THE SECOND MOUSE some more anyway. I've got this holiday list of relatives who keep asking about "the real Vermont." I know what to give 'em.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An Archer Mayor Bibliography:
1988 Open Season
1991 Borderlines
1992 Scent of Evil
1993 Skeleton's Knee
1994 Fruits of the Poisonous Tree
1995 A Dark Root
1996 The Ragman's Memory
1997 Bellows Falls
1998 The Disposable Man
1999 Occam's Razor
2000 The Marble Mask
2001 Tucker Peak
2002 The Sniper's Wife
2003 Gatekeeper
2004 The Surrogate Thief
2005 ST Albans Fire
2006 The Second Mouse.