Three Can Keep a Secret by Archer Mayor is the 24th procedural mystery featuring Joe Gunther and the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, in which the team is spread thin, along with the rest of law enforcement, in the disarray following Hurricane Irene (available October 1, 2013).
The mountains are alive with secrets.
Vermont’s Green Mountains are pretty as can be, right? Depending on the time of year they’re awash with colorful foliage, maple syrup, skiers, and hay bales—and looters and criminals and the insane. Having spent summers there as a child and having enjoyed several granola-filled high-school years there during the early 1970s, I appreciate Archer Mayor’s willingness to portray the “real” Vermont. Getting it right is a more complex task than it might seem, for both writer and reader. Mayor’s latest police procedural featuring Investigator Joe Gunther challenges just about every notion a “flatlander” may hold about the Green Mountain State.
The current release is set against a recent nemesis: Hurricane Irene. For most readers this storm may be no more than a dim recollection; in Vermont it remains the modern threshold for devastation. As the book notes, thirteen towns were left inaccessible by Irene and not all of that damage is yet repaired.
In the book’s opening pages, Mayor describes well why and how the state’s geography would soon compound the looming storm’s impact:
Vermont was called the Green Mountain State for good reason. It was a dented, twisted, punched-out washboard from overhead, with barely a flat acre across its surface. And it featured a dinosaur-aged spinal column of mountain peaks down its middle, which forced the roads to parallel a spidery maze of waterways lining the bottoms of countless valleys, ravines and vales… The water would come guttering down the slopes, accumulating in mass and strength until it became its own uncontainable force, capable of feats beyond imagining.
In the southeastern corner of the state, Joe Gunther’s office at the Vermont Bureau of Investigation takes a hit, but it is Hurricane Irene’s impact on towns further north that sets the story in motion. Events soon suggest that the chaos out-of-doors serves as a reflection of events, past and present, which take place within several, apparently well-ordered places. When the downpour floods a state hospital for the criminally insane, electric locks short out, allowing one long-time inmate to attempt an escape along little-known basement tunnels that are filling fast with mucky flood waters.
Gunther and his team are charged with finding the lost inmate. While Joe investigates, another member of the squad, Willy, is called to a different part of the state, when flood waters unearth another person who couldn’t be found—a dead one. Describing Willy’s pursuit of this second missing person, the author provides details which depict with spare accuracy the nature of the folks populating this corner of New England. Here, Willy and his partner drive to the house of the missing person’s relatives:
… they paused in the dooryard with the engine running, respecting the rural protocol of giving homeowners time to take notice—and to call in any near-feral dogs that might be prowling about.
The two missing person cases convene through less natural means, as if to show that whatever Mother Nature throws at us, what we throw at each other is far worse. During theis course of events, a reader’s idea of the bucolic Green Mountains might be colored, if not supplanted, by what Joe Gunther learns about politics old, and his former girlfriend (now state governor) discovers about politics new. It’s a sad surprise when the veteran investigator uncovers what some will do without concern for the citizens they have sworn to serve. Indeed, Mayor sets any notion of Vermont as a land of granola politics on its head:
“… People forget what Vermont used to be like before World War Two—ultraconservative, hyper-parochial, provincial, and isolationist. There are plenty of reasons that there’s not more industry or big business in this state, but some of the major ones stem from the old-timers wanting nothing to do with the outside world. You could argue that quite a few of today’s tree-huggers toe the same line, despite their ‘think global’ bullshit . . . The shift from Republicans to Democrats in the ’60s was less uniform or universal than people remember today…”
Yet political insiders seem to be one and the same breed, no matter which party they favor, and their shenanigans both previous and current create degradation more distressing than anything Hurricane Irene can dish out. Stones and earth can be removed, a ruined home abandoned, but human machinations provide no end of trouble. Mayor examines these well, exhuming the motivations that set them in play. And he does so with an even hand. No group goes unscathed, not even Gunther’s squad, or Joe himself.
Three Can Keep a Secret covers a great deal of ground, both literally and figuratively. The sometimes cumbersome cast traverses from one end of the state to the other, and the story touches on an array of storm sequelae, from industrial pollution and loss of infrastructure, to looting and drivers caught in floodwaters getting washed downriver. Yet, however powerful Hurricane Irene might be, that tempest was a single crisis that cannot compare to the everlasting villains known to Vermonters and flatlanders alike as grief and greed.
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Kate Lincoln writes crime fiction informed by her years in clinical medicine and as a homeopath and EMT, most of which is set in New Jersey horse country called the Somerset Hills.
See all of Kate Lincoln’s posts for Criminal Element.