Massacre Pond by Paul Doiron is the 4th novel featuring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch, who investigates the senseless slaughter of ten moose, shot and left to die on the private property of a wealthy animal rights activist (available July 16, 2013).
Massacre Pond is a damn good mystery – full of twists, turns, and clever red herrings. The prose is fantastic, too, with portions of the book reading like a love letter to the Maine woods. But perhaps my favorite thing is Doiron’s rather unconventional decision to hang his mystery on a series of animal deaths rather than the murder of a human being.
If you ask me, this is a brilliant move for a couple of different reasons. First, it adds an element of surprise. Readers have gotten so used to the standard First-Act Corpse Reveal – “Oh, no! There’s a dead man/woman/child in the pond/park/alley! And – gasp! – he/she appears to have been [insert bizarre and horrific manner of death]ed!” – that these scenes have lost their emotional impact. They’re expected; we steel ourselves for them before we even crack the cover.
But Bowdich’s grisly discovery during the opening of Massacre Pond? It’s the very definition of unexpected, and I’d be lying if I told you I was even remotely prepared for the following:
“The ravens were here when I found them,” Billy said quietly, speaking with the hushed tone one uses in a house of worship. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have noticed anything.”
I swallowed hard to keep my breakfast from coming up in my throat.
“Those beaks of theirs ain’t too sharp,” he said, “but they really did a job on the little calf’s face.”
I took note of the location: seventeen yards from the road.
“You ever seen anything like this before?” Billy whispered.
I shook my head no.
The cow moose had both sets of legs crossed, almost as if someone had posed her that way for a formal portrait, but I knew the big animal had fallen heavily, dropped by a single bullet to the head.
The first calf, the baby, lay beside her, with its face torn open by the ravens and the bloody skin peeled away from its mouth. The birds had pecked away at her lips, giving her a perpetual smile that she would wear into eternity. The other calf— a yearling bull that had the gangling look of a teenager that hadn’t grown entirely into his body and now never would—was lying closer to the pond. It had been shot through the eye. The bullet had left a star-shaped hole that you could slide your index finger into all the way to the knuckle.
And lest the significance of this discovery escape you:
In my imagination, I watched a vehicle creep slowly through the trees under the cover of darkness. I saw the small moose family turn curiously toward the sound of the engine, their eyes glowing green in the handheld spotlight. How long had they been blinded by the intense illumination? Thirty seconds? Less? Enough time for three bullets to be fired in rapid succession. The animals had died so quickly, they’d never even realized they should run.
As Billy’s voice rose, I found I could understand his words again. “Whoever shot them didn’t even bother to take the meat! He just killed them for the fun of killing, and then he drove off down the lane to shoot another one, like it was a fucking video game. What the hell is this, Mike?”
The sun seared the back of my neck. “It’s a serial killing, Billy. I don’t know what else you’d call it.”
Horrifying, no? This First-Act Corpse Reveal not only turned my stomach – it broke my heart. In part because Doiron’s imagery is so vivid, but also because it caught me unawares; I went in wearing my literary bulletproof vest and was met with a rock to the head.
Dorion’s chosen plot device is good for more than just shock value, though; it also opens the door to a cast-wide debate on the subject of hunting. While Mike Bowditch might argue that no true hunter would ever perpetrate the massacre that took place on Morse’s property, Morse herself disagrees:
She leaned forward in her chair. “Last week was the moose hunt, wasn’t it?”
“In this zone, it was. The moose hunt happens during different weeks in September and October around the state.”
“How many dead moose did you see?”
I thought back to my patrols during that long, hot week; the many times the agent at the tagging station had called to tell me a big bull had just come in on a trailer; the occasions when I had happened on a party of hunters field-dressing an animal in the woods.
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but I know they tagged twenty-three at Day’s General Store.”
“Yes, I saw several being weighed as we drove by. They were lifted on a chain by their hind legs over that pole contraption they have set up there. All of them had been gutted beforehand, and there was a pool of blood on the ground. People were taking pictures. It was a grotesque spectacle.” She set her mug down on the arm of the chair. “The question I have for you is, how was that any different from what happened on my property?”
“The hunters who shot the moose didn’t just leave them to rot,” I said. “They’re going to eat the meat. In many cases, these men and their families are poor, and they are going to save hundreds of dollars in food bills. Nothing is going to waste.”
She waved her hand, and I saw that her fingernails were newly polished. “You pretend it’s all a utilitarian enterprise. What’s that word hunters always use? The deer harvest? That’s a cozy term for mass murder, in my opinion.” Her throaty voice began to rise in pitch. “But you’re deliberately ignoring the key similarity between the ‘legal’ hunters who gleefully pose for photographs with their trophies and the hunters who shot the moose on my land.”
“Which is what, ma’am?” I tried to keep the personal insult I was feeling out of my voice.
“The enthusiasm. The joy of killing another living thing. You hunters can pretend you’re engaged in some noble tradition that softhearted city people will never understand. But the truth is, you get a kick out of inflicting death, and I find that repugnant.”
Because people tend to be ardently opinionated with regard to hunting, the topic is a ready-made source for conflict between Doiron’s characters. And while conflict may not be good for the soul, it’s a damn good thing for plot development.
Do yourself a favor and order a copy of Massacre Pond by Paul Doiron; it’s not only a thrilling read, but a nuanced one, as well, and as a native of this state, I can assure you – it’s about as close as you can get to the Maine wilderness without leaving your couch.
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Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.