Monday, January 10, 2011

Blood-colored foliage

In Red Herring, Archer Mayor updates a vibrant tradition of local color in crime fiction

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

To a surprising extent, contemporary crime fiction occupies a place on the literary landscape similar to that of local color writing in the late nineteenth century.  Back then, local colorists like Sarah Orne Jewett (Maine), Hamlin Garland (Ohio) or Bret Harte (California) sated the appetites of armchair travelers who craved the pleasures of particularity, whether out of a sense of nostalgia or an insistence on an alternative to the homogenizing impact of a national economy.  Nowadays, such cravings are as likely to be quenched by microbrews and bird-watching. But the impulses, for better or worse, are similar.

There are, of course, significant differences between crime novelists and local colorists. The latter were typically interested in rural life; crime novelists are almost always urban. Local color was an elite genre; crime fiction is the closest thing to a mass audience in publishing. But the underlying functions are similar.  Down-and-dirty Washington DC is as much a character as Derek Strange in the novels of George Pelancanos; ditto for Chicago/V.I. Warshawski for Sara Paretsky and Los Angeles/Harry Bosch for Michael Connelly. We also tend to take these writers' word for it when they describe the latest advances in forensics and other aspects of detective work, which often get a fillip of credibility with the list of thanks to law enforcement officials that fill the acknowledgment pages of their books.

Literally and figuratively, the novels of Archer Mayor are on the fringe of this world. His terrain is Vermont -- a state, not a city, and yet a state with a smaller population than many metropolises. (A jack of all trades, Mayor has performed various kinds of police work, including death investigator.)  His metier is the sub-genre of police procedural, conducted through the fictional organization of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI) headed by a decidedly dowdy figure named Joe Gunther. The Spenser of Robert B. Parker and Kinsey Millhone of Sue Grafton, though former police officers, stake their identity as free-ranging private investigators. Harry Bosch has an antagonistic relationship -- at best -- with the LAPD. But Joe Gunther is a company man. His unshakeable institutional commitment makes a difference in the organization for which he works, and the motley crew, like the psychically tortured and physically disabled veteran Willy Kunkle and his feisty partner, Sammie Martens, who pledge their loyalty to him as a result.

Mayor is a writer of quiet satisfactions. Yes, it is true that we witness any number of grisly crimes -- four murders in his latest novel alone, in a state which Gunther observes that there are typically only about a dozen annually -- and he goes out of his way to illustrate the seamier side of life, like predatory Internet chat rooms, in a place that the academic-minded tourist is likely to prize for its seemingly pristine distance from criminal activity. But it's in the quotidian moments, like when his protagonist gropes his way toward a conversational approach with families of murder victims, or intervenes in an internecine quarrel, or queries an expert from an avowed vantage of layman, that we gradually come to savor Gunther's fallible decency and Mayor's great care as a writer. We also get, in those long drives that Gunther takes from one end of the state to the other, plenty of that Vermont beauty that brings its own set of pleasures.

In Red Herring, the 21st Joe Gunther novel, the VBI gets involved in a string of seemingly unrelated deaths perplexingly connected by a dab of blood that does not come from any of the victims -- hence the title --  and emerges as the signature of a serial killer. When Gunther and Co. have the opportunity of availing themselves the advanced scientific techniques of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, they make a detour to Long Island that becomes part of the case. (As is often true of crime fiction, Mayor has his characters make such field trips; in the the 2002 novel The Sniper's Wife, for example, Willy Kunkle spends a substantial amount of time in Manhattan.) Gradually Gunther and his team connect dots that link crimes which, as it turns out, are motivated more by a desire to punish the survivors of these crimes than animus against the victims. The novel gradually builds narrative momentum, and the climax this time is both more forceful and open-ended than many of Mayor's previous novels.

The major reason for this is that Red Herring also devotes time, as all his novels do, to Gunther's personal life. A widower, he was for many books the partner of Gail Zigman, a rape survivor and local politician who is now running for governor. He also had a brief affair with the memorably sketched medical examiner Beverly Hillstrom in The Second Mouse (2006), who shows up here. But for the last few books his partner has been Lyn Silva, whose family was at the center of Mayor's last novel, The Price of Malice (2009). This time Lyn is both jealous of, and drawn to, Zigman. Their paths intersect on the campaign trail with fateful results.

As is true with many of these writers, it's possible to jump in at any point and work your way backward or forward. In a way, it's actually better to do this, because if you find a writer you like you can work through a body of work without waiting for the annual issue that is the standard interval for such books, as indeed it has been for Mayor for many years now. Joe Gunther is by no means the flashiest protagonist you're going to find in this genre. But he's someone whose company you will genuinely enjoy, and someone who can give you plausible belief in the ongoing vitality of American democracy in the corrupt, but still vital, provinces of this hard land.