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


Cody Jackson, Dave Burchfield, Rachel Baiman: Recent Releases

Cody Jackson, Where the River Meets the Sky (EP)

Isn't Cody Jackson a great name for a musician from British Columbia? The talent matches the handle. As heard on his new 5-song EP, Jackson sports a big voice that often calls to mind the husk in Richard Shindell's timbre. "Where the River Meets the Sky" isn't a good song; it's a great one. When Jackson airs it out, you can conjure big mountains, vast horizons, and cold rivers bending beyond the eye's vanishing point. The album version has added reverb, but I've seen videos of Jackson doing this one justice solo, and the fact that he plays an Epiphone dreadnaught further endears him to me. (It was my first guitar.) I also admire Jackson's ability with the pen. Who hasn't had a relationship that could be described as "Right Place, Wrong Time?" In spirited bursts and stops, Jackson proceeds to sing: We started out as two unknowns/A king and queen of different roads. That line alone tells you things probably won't go well. Ditto a line from "Unchanging:" I know I'm free of sin/But my actions speak differently. My second favorite song (after the title track) is "Cherished One," which is sparse yet powerful. Jackson builds the song through the use of ever-so-slight catches in his voice that dial drama up a notch without venturing into overkill territory. As a musician, singer, and songwriter Jackson is both expressive and impressive. ★★★★

Dave Burchfield, Beginnings

Dave Burchfield took a six-year hiatus from music that he thought would be permanent, but he's back with a band and a new EP that's ironically titled Beginnings. This is bluegrass from the folk end of the spectrum. He often takes his time laying out his tune and his light voice can sometimes get lost even though the melodies are generally quiet. Still, it's nice to welcome him back onto the trail. Sample "Arkansas" with its spare but pretty melody. "Have Tried" is also a good one, a waltz about that age-old dilemma: is this relationship working or not? ★★★

Rachel Baiman, Thanksgiving  (EP) 

Rachel Baiman sings, plays banjo, saws a mean fiddle, and can pick it on the guitar. You can sample her country, bluegrass, and old time music wares on her new EP Thanksgiving. Baiman has been clearly influenced by the late John Hartford. You can hear this on "Tent City," whose melody lines evoke "Gentle on My Mind." She also does a cover of "Madison, Tennessee," which isn't one of Hartford's but was penned by the John Hartford String Band. There's a fine video of her singing this one with Molly Tuttle and if you're not impressed by Tuttle's cross picking, there's no pleasing you. I will caution that Baiman's voice is nasal and deliberately muddy at times. This might not be everyone's taste, but she sure can play. ★★★


Mary Queen of Scots? Not Really

Mary Queen of Scots
Directed by Josie Rourke
Focus Films, 125 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity, implied homosexuality)

Audience scores for Mary Queen of Scots have been tepid and it’s easy to figure out why. The 16th century players and details of Mary Stuart’s tragic reigns are convoluted even for historians who have studied Scottish and English history. For the non-historian, it would take a mini series to clarify the key figures, motives, and intrigue–not two hours plus change. Director Josie Rourke could have gone in either of two directions: simplify the details and withstand the wrath of historians; or just call the film Mary, make it fictional, and state at the end that it was loosely based on Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587). Alas, director Josie Rourke tried to hybridize those options.

Rourke ought not to have assumed familiarity with the events portrayed on the screen. I overheard two remarks as I was leaving. “I had never heard of Mary Queen of Scots,” said one woman. Her friend replied, “I think she’s the one they called Bloody Mary.” (Nope!)  If you want to get a sense of the challenge Rourke faced, just peruse Mary’s Wikipedia entry and tell me how much of it you understand the next morning.

Here’s a Mary Queen of Scots skinny. The Tudor family took over the English throne after the War of the Roses (1455-1487). Years later, a Tudor you’ve heard of, King Henry VIII, went through six wives in his quest for a male heir. When his first wife, Catherine, failed to bear a son, Henry sought an annulment. When the pope refused, Henry booted the Catholic Church, and England became a Protestant nation. His third wife gave him a sickly male heir, the future Edward VI, but he died in 1553 with no issue. At that point Mary I, Henry’s daughter to Catherine, took over the throne and held it from 1553-1558. She was history’s “Bloody Mary,” as many died in her attempt to reinstate Catholicism in England. Guess what happened when she died? Her Protestant sister to Henry’s second wife took the throne. Queen Elizabeth I ruled England for 50 years (1553-1603)., which didn’t sit well with those Englishmen who were Catholic.

Henry never sired a virile male, but some of his siblings did. The following questions mattered in the 16th century. How closely related to Henry were those seeking to sit on the throne? What was their gender? Were they Protestant or Catholic? Mary I and Elizabeth I were direct offspring, but this was not a time in which a woman’s right to rule was widely accepted. Had Elizabeth birthed a male child, she would have gone from queen to regent­–a caretaker­­–until her son reached a suitable age to rule. Elizabeth sidestepped this by never marrying. (Whether or not she was the “Virgin Queen” of legend is unclear.) In other words, females were pawns in a male political game.

That’s the deep background of Mary Tudor (1542-1587), except for this. Mary had a better claim to the English throne than her cousin Elizabeth, as Mary’s lineage passed through proper male bloodlines. At 14, Mary Tudor was married to the heir to the French throne. She was queen for 13 months when her husband suddenly died. She returned to Scotland (where she was queen) in August 1561, an attractive 17-year-old widow.

Mary Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan) is set in the crucial year of 1569. Suffice it to say that very few in Scotland wanted a kingless queen­, especially not her illegitimate half-brother, the Earl of Moray (James McArdle), who had been regent until Mary returned; or the Protestant firebrand minister John Knox (David Tennant), who added sexism to his long list of intolerances. In 1565, Mary wedded her comely first cousin Henry Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), an error of judgment. Darnley was frivolous, vacuous, vicious, and (probably) gay. He managed to help murder Mary’s beloved Italian secretary David Rizzio (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and impregnate Mary with the future James VI of Scotland/James I of England before his many enemies engineered Darnley's death. They also forced Mary to marry the Protestant Earl of Bothwell (Martin Compston), who probably raped her. With her son in the hands of the Earl of Moray and danger everywhere, Mary fled to England and hoped that her cousin Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) would protect her. Had Mary been less proud and scheming that might have happened but in 1587, she went to the chopping block as an accused traitor.

If your head is swimming, I can assure you that this summary is more coherent than the film. The film has a few redeeming features, the biggest of which is Ms. Ronan. Unless I miss my mark badly, she will soon become the Meryl Streep of this generation. Her Scottish accent is really good; she carries herself with royal, often haughty dignity; is physically appropriate for Mary; and is luminous on the screen. Also wonderful is John Mathieson’s cinematography, even if those who’ve been to Scotland and northern England recognize that his is an often-illogical travelogue of images. David Tennant is also spot-on ominous as Knox. He even looks like the statue of Knox in Edinburgh’s St. Giles Cathedral.

Nonetheless, Rourke’s hybridization efforts call attention to the film’s ahistorical details. She calls upon a crew of National Theatre actors to flesh out the cast. Each is up to the task, but none of them would have held such important positions in the 16th century, and you will see more black actors on the screen than you’d see in a month of travel in Scotland. Rourke also attempted to make a feminist bonding film. Okay, but to do so, she reduces Mary and Elizabeth to sob sisters (semi-) bonding over male dominance. (In real life, the two never met face-to-face, and no one ever said Elizabeth was soft!) In addition, Robbie is merely a so-so actress and she’s out of her league cast against Ronan.

Let me state again that a film about rivals in love, politics, and power simply called Mary would work better–sans Max Richter’s overdone soundtrack–but what we see simply isn’t Mary Queen of Scots. Alas, I can foresee others leaving the theater saying, “I never knew there was a Mary Queen of Scots.”

Rob Weir