Trace by Archer Mayor is the 28th book in the Joe Gunther series (available September 26, 2017).
I confess that this is my first Joe Gunther novel, and the series is 28 books in, so there’s a lot of rich history that I’ve missed in the series. That said, Archer Mayor makes it shockingly easy to get comfortable in Joe’s world without a ton of exposition loading down the narrative. At 28 books in, that’s no easy feat. You know these characters have a ton of history, but it’s like settling in with family—rife with conflict but infused with an unmistakable undercurrent of warmth.
Joe is the head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation—they’re specialists called in by other departments when they need help. “They were to assist and fade away, leaving the limelight to others.” He’s got a crack team reporting to him too. He’ll need them to be on the ball because his mother is ill and he must accompany her to a care facility until she gets better. It could be weeks, or it could be months. Samantha Martens is in charge while he’s gone, and she’s a little unsure of herself—especially since her fellow cop and difficult significant other, Willy Kunkle, is surely going to chafe having to answer to her.
Although not married, Willy Kunkle and Samantha Martens shared a child, Emma; a house, once Willy’s own; and a propensity for exchanging mostly friendly, if often barbed, one-liners. They’d been fellow detectives downstairs, before VBI was created, and had forged a Mutt-and-Jeff image of contrasting styles that had therefore left most onlookers stunned by their romantic coupling.
“Nah. That’s okay,” Willy muttered, still pretending to forage around in his desk.
Lester stayed silent. Like so many others, he often took Willy’s hard, abrasive outer shell for granted, forgetting the man’s baggage of combat-born PTSD, past alcoholism, and instinctive paranoia—not to mention a crippled left arm, the result of a bullet he’d received on the job years earlier. An intuitive, natural-born cop, Willy could be judgmental, dismissive, and unmannered at one moment, while being thoughtful, sensitive, and generous at the next.
God only knew what Lester had poked with his playful announcement, if anything, but he wasn’t about to worsen the situation by saying more.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to. The door to the office opened to reveal Sammie Martens, fresh from having dropped Emma off at preschool.
“Hey,” she said, taking them both in warily.
“Hey, yourself,” Willy answered neutrally. “Long time, no see.”
She didn’t respond right away, instead registering Lester’s embarrassment before saying, “You heard.”
She held up her iPhone. “Just got it when I was delivering Emma. Kind of a kick in the butt.”
“Woulda been nice if he’d told us face-to-face,” Lester said, moving to safer ground.
“Doesn’t matter,” Willy announced. “It was a family crisis. You do what you gotta do.” He looked at Sammie directly. “You’ll be great. It’s not like you don’t act like the boss half the time anyhow.”
Lester laughed, he hoped supportively, but it only caused Willy to darken slightly and reach into his pocket, saying, “I gotta get this.”
He pulled two stacked cell phones out of his pocket, one of which he deftly tucked away again before lifting the other to his ear and heading back out to the corridor for privacy.
Sammie gazed down at Spinney and shook her head. “That went well,” she said.
So, poor Sammie is off to a running start, and she gets to go home to Willy at the end of the day too! Meanwhile, Lester is asked to look into what seems to have been a straightforward shooting. A man was pulled over, and a shootout resulted in the death of both the driver and the cop that pulled him over. Seems open and shut. But there’s something strange with the fingerprints, so Les sets out to do some digging, finding out that the investigating officers didn’t really dig that much at all.
Meanwhile, Jayla Robinson is desperate. Jared Wylie, the man that she thought was her knight in shining armor, is anything but, and she’s desperate to get away.
Things had not been going well over the past few months. For reasons unexplained to her, Wylie had shape-shifted from being the sophisticated, savvy monitor of Albany’s politically charged government corridors to something less definable and much more ominous. A purported lobbyist, yes, and a lawyer from what she’d gotten off the framed documents lining his office. But Jared was clearly something more. Something malevolent.
Brutal confirmation of this unease had come a couple of months ago. By convention or cliché, he should have been drunk at the time, in order to rationalize his excess. But he’d been sober and angry and very, very cold. Stimulated by what, she hadn’t known, he’d come at her out of the blue, torn her clothes, thrown her about, hurting her in the process, and finally raped her on the kitchen floor. What had followed was almost boringly predictable—the apologies, the excuses, the promises of better behavior. Unimpressed, she’d called 911.
Only to then receive an unexpected education.
In response to her action, knowing he couldn’t stop the police from appearing at their front door, Jared had made it crystal clear what would happen if she went beyond calling the cops and actually told them what had happened.
When another inevitable confrontation happens, Jayla fights back and gains the upper hand, fleeing while she has a chance. She decides to take a bus to Burlington, Vermont. By chance, she meets Rachel, who is the daughter of Joe’s love interest, Vermont’s medical examiner, Beverly Hillstrom. Rachel, seeing that Jayla (who reverts back to her real name Charlotte) has nothing but the clothes on her back, invites her to stay with her, and a friendship is born. But Jared isn’t about to give up Jayla without a fight.
Meanwhile, Willy is asked to look into a strange find by a young girl: a few bloody teeth and a bit of electronics that's more than suspicious. But has there actually been a crime? Don’t worry, Willy is willing to use his own brand of cowboy policing to get things done, and for him, rules don’t always apply.
For readers new to the series, this may not be the best starting place if they want to get to know Joe since he’s largely out of the picture, but like I said, it’s very easy to get caught up in the goings-on of the VBI. Mayor takes everything good about police procedurals—intricate cases, the politics of policing, and interesting bad guys (or girls)—and insulates those elements with a team that’s a family in every way that counts. They truly respect and rely on each other, and Mayor takes the time to flesh out each character, giving them rich and interesting backstories. That a few of these cases take very surprising turns isn’t, well, surprising, given the care that Mayor gives his characters and the ins and outs of how the VBI works. This is a fully immersive, fascinating read that will surely please fans of the series and win some new ones in the process.
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