Bury the Lead: A New Joe Gunther Mystery

Archer Mayor (2018)
Bury the Lead
Minotaur/St. Martin's, 304 pages.
★★★ ½

Archer Mayor is employed as a death examiner for the Vermont Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. I guess some people like to bring their work home with them. In 1988, Mayor published the first of his Joe Gunther detective novels and he hasn't slowed down; Bury the Lead is the 29th book in the series. Faithful readers have come to know many of the characters in Bury the Lead, but don't despair if you're a newbie. Mayor is the sort of writer who'd rather you got lost in the story rather than in dwelling in the past, so he drops plenty of hints to allow readers to fill in the blanks. 

Gunther is the head field officer for the fictitious Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VMI), and his girlfriend Beverly Hillstrom is actually Mayor's alter ego, a medical examiner whose autopsy reports help unravel a grisly tale of murder, revenge, and double-cross. Joe and his associate Samantha ("Sam") are called upon to solve the murder of a young woman dumped atop Bromley Mountain. It's pretty cut-and-dried. A stolen truck is caught on the resort's camera with a bundle in the back and one angle is good enough to make a positive ID. In very little time, Joe and Sam have a suspect in jail: Mick Durocher, a local guy with a spotty employment record and a drinking problem. Durocher quickly admits to the murder. Case solved, right?

Of course not. Down in White River another detective, Lester Spinney is investigating some prankish pyrotechnics at a warehouse owned by GreenField, a food distributor. It has the earmarks of devilment and disruption at the hands of a disgruntled employee. Because, by owner Robert Beaupré Sr.'s admission, his firm specializes in giving second chances to a lot of marginal folks, the list of suspects is long. When the pranks grow deadly, urgency increases, and suspicion deepens when Durocher's name appears as an ex-employee and he's cooling his heels in prison. Moreover, Gunther doesn't trust Durcoher's confession to the murder of a woman identified as Teri Parker. She was known to be a part-time hooker, but not the sort who'd take up with someone like Mick. There also seems to be something about the Beaupré family–Robert Sr. and his sons Robert Jr. and Dennis—that's out of whack with GreenField's reputation as a progressive company.    

Mayor introduces several subplots, one involving Gunther's longtime associate Willy Kunkle, Sam's husband, who is out of commission with complications from having been shot. (This occurred in a previous Mayor novel.) Kunkle's pain sends him into a downward spiral of OxyContin and alcohol abuse that must be sorted out. Another thread involves Beverly's 24-year-old daughter Rachel, who has just landed her first professional job as a photographer and writer for a Brattleboro newspaper. Before the final reveal we are also taken to Massachusetts, inside a Springfield (Vermont) clinic, and to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which is treating an Ebola case. Not to mention that the novel's body count surpasses Vermont's yearly murder rate. (Fourteen in 2016, the most recent report.)

Too much? Yes, I think so. Mayor has so many irons in the fire because he is trying to incorporate recent news stories to make the book more timely, weave in background material for newer readers, and toss chew bones to longtime readers who already know most of the characters. Indeed, a few of the side tales could be viewed as padding. This is especially noticeable when a major reveal occurs when there's still about 20 percent of the novel left. And, if you know Vermont, his characters sure do a lot of hard driving.

What Mayor does well is show us the not-so- pretty side to Vermont's outward beauty. He takes us into trailer parks, dilapidated apartment buildings, and into towns–White River Junction especially–whose profile isn't the stuff of Chamber of Commerce boosterism. Another such locale is Fitchburg, just across the Massachusetts line. Mayor expertly captures its postindustrial seediness. He's also a good storyteller, even when he's guilty of interjecting improbable elements into a narrative that occasionally feels more like a news headline culling than a plausible Vermont tale.

If you're a fan of the Joe Gunther series, you will devour Bury the Lead as if it's the latest installment of a favorite soap opera. If, like me, you are a casual reader of Archer Mayor, you will find it a perfectly acceptable way to wile away a few winter evenings. Hey, not everything has to be War and Peace.

 Rob Weir

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