Book Review: Dead by Dawn by Paul Doiron
By Janet WebbJune 25, 2021
Road trip! Man and wolf are off to visit the vet and afterward, conduct a cold-case inquiry. Maine game warden Mike Bowditch’s cold-case is “the suspicious drowning of a wealthy professor.” The death was deemed accidental, but the professor’s persistent and unconventional daughter-in-law is sure he was murdered. After speaking with her, Mike interviews “a reclusive survivalist and conspiracy theorist,” who went duck-hunting with the professor the day he died. Like dominos, one interview flows into another. The sun is setting when Mike asks “a sinister local family” uncomfortable questions. At the end of a long day, Mike’s Jeep is forced off the road, plunging him into a frozen river. Death by Dawn is so viscerally suspenseful it must be inhaled in short spurts. The plot weaves seamlessly between Mike’s perilous situation and the events that preceded it. It’s December 21st, the Winter Solstice aka the shortest day of the year. Death by Dawn references many earlier books, characters, and experiences and Paul Doiron ties everything together beautifully.
Shadow, his half-wild, canine/wolf is Mike’s companion for the day. Mike can’t let him loose to run around in a city park because Shadow is a hungry carnivore. Mike wonders if he would eat his “fellow canines” or their owners?
It was necessary to have a sense of humor around the half-wild animal. Otherwise his captivity afflicted me with too much sadness and guilt.
“How’re you doing back there, big guy?”
He answered with a grunt.
Doiron provides some clever snippets that foreshadow the troubles ahead. What does one wear for a dunking in a frozen river? Possibly only a professional grade wetsuit would provide protection in freezing waters but what’s the verdict on wearing blue jeans while doing strenuous outdoor activities? Mike knows.
Beneath my blue jeans (admittedly not a good choice for a day with a forecast high of twenty-five degrees), I wore merino long johns and heavy wool socks.
Much of the activity of Dead by Dawn takes place on, under, alongside, and over the mighty Androscoggin River. The glory days of the Androscoggin are firmly in the rearview mirror.
For centuries, the hydraulic muscle of the Androscoggin had powered dozens of mills, making paper and shoes, textiles and electricity. Communities had grown up along its banks and prospered, until the end of the twentieth century, when seemingly overnight, the world had gone topsy-turvy. The factories had been closed and the pulp machines had been sold and shipped to third-world nations in the Global South.
Today the Androscoggin is known primarily as the home of the perpetual Division III NCAA women’s rowing champion.
Under the surface of a frozen river, Mike has none of his equipment available, but he fights his way out to ensure that he and Shadow don’t perish in a watery grave. Almost everything is lost, but he still has the Beast, a folding knife given to him on his thirtieth birthday by Billy Cronk, his friend and neighbor. The Gerber 06 Auto is no ordinary knife—Billy carried it “on his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and survived while thousands of his fellow warriors perished.”
“A man without a knife is a man without a life,” Charley Stevens always says. I don’t know if it’s some old proverb or a rhyme of his own creation. But the wisdom behind the saying reminds me to keep a tight grip.
It wouldn’t be a Mike Bowditch mystery without a quote from his mentor, retired game warden Charley Stevens.
Earlier that day, Mike questioned Marc Rivard about the case of the drowned professor. Marc hasn’t changed much from the days when he was Mike’s second sergeant: “he was a taskmaster, a bully, and a politician.” In Mike’s opinion, he was a sociopath, or at least “he came close enough for discomfort.” Rivard despises Mike and always has. According to Rivard, he’s not the only one.
“How much time do you spend looking over your shoulder?”
The question brought me up short. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve made a lot of enemies over your career.”
I shrugged. “Most of them are in prison—or dead.”
“But not all of them. And even the dead ones have brothers and sons eager for payback.”
I couldn’t help but wonder if he grouped himself into this category of enemies.
“Paranoia isn’t my style, Marc.”
“I always said your cockiness was going to get you killed.”
“It hasn’t yet.”
That’s some scary foreshadowing—and when “unknown armed assailants on snowmobiles chase him through the wilderness,” Mike scours his past for clues as to who might hate him so much they want him Dead by Dawn. The long dark night sees Mike shifting through memories and recollections, with a wide cast of characters in his personal ether chiming in. Everything we’ve learned about Mike Bowditch comes to the fore—he’s “a young man with an old soul” and that colors his perceptions frequently. It’s not easy being “a temporal fugitive from the age of the Klondike Gold Rush when men literally bet their lives against nature.” Readers have learned not to bet against Mike’s tenacity and courage—Dead by Dawn is a brilliant mystery that will inspire a massive re-read of Paul Doiron’s mystery series, starting with The Poacher’s Son, an Edgar Award finalist.