At Book 30, Archer Mayor's Characters Still Hit Home | Books | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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At Book 30, Archer Mayor's Characters Still Hit Home

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Archer Mayor - ZACH STEPHENS
  • Zach Stephens
  • Archer Mayor

On page one, Archer Mayor already has you in the car. He likes to toss the reader into the thick of it, let them become swallowed, briefly, by the action and then offer a respite — a moment to come up for air and learn how, exactly, they got here.

"Once I've got them in the car, then I'm going to absolutely give them a little of a tourist trip," Mayor said in a phone interview from his home in Newfane. "A little look out the side window."

The writer credits this approach to his background as a journalist and a desire to hook his readers that has never left him. His chapters are short and start out punchy, leapfrogging past expository prose. After three decades, Mayor has this formula honed to an art. His 30th novel in the Joe Gunther series, focusing on a detective by that name and his team, came out in September and is titled Bomber's Moon.

The opening pages introduce the reader in quick order to Sally Kravitz, a private investigator following a man on a snowy evening; Alex Hale, staking out a parked Escalade that he plans to burglarize; and Rachel Reiling, a reporter being called in for an intimidating chat with her curmudgeonly boss at a local newspaper.

In chapter three, Joe Gunther arrives, along with fellow investigator Sammie Martens, at the scene of a crime that has occurred separately from the aforementioned car burglary. Mayor walks his reader backward from there, establishing the identities of Joe and Sammie (detectives with the fictional Vermont Bureau of Investigation), how they got there (Joe is statewide field commander of the office after a long stint with the Brattleboro Police Department), and why they're in a run-down kitchen in Bellows Falls.

That last one's easy: Someone is dead.

I had never read an Archer Mayor book before Bomber's Moon. I'm new to this state and most of its literary institutions, and Mayor's backlog is sizable enough to be daunting. But, contrary to every reader instinct in my body, I started with the 30th volume. Later, in our phone call, Mayor assured me that this was fine in his view. He wrote the books as individual novels and doesn't expect people to read them in order.

Back to those introductions: We have Sally and Alex and Rachel and Joe and Sammie, and then later, Willy and Dan and Lester. Those are just the main characters, and each one is at the center of at least one brief chapter of the story. If that sounds like a heavily populated tale, it is (never mind the story's bad guys). But many of the cast members are familiar to repeat readers, having had roles in one or more of Mayor's previous novels.

In Bomber's Moon, Mayor drops references to the past stories like Easter eggs. These little cutout windows into other books left me briefly frustrated — what happened to Rachel in Burlington? How did Joe save Sally? But that frustration is easily remedied in a way that will ultimately be more satisfying: I just have to go pick up another Archer Mayor book.

Those backstories aren't really the point, and Mayor summarizes them efficiently. Bomber's Moon is a fresh story and stands on its own. Mayor's tale connects the Bellows Falls murder, the killing of a clever thief, and a mysterious, troubled private high school called Thorndike. There's a distinct sense of class division, and Thorndike, as a boarding school populated with wealthy out-of-staters, is an archetype that many Vermonters may automatically consider menacing.

When I asked Mayor about his intentions with the school, though, he said he doesn't view money as a universally corrupting influence. He's interested in the many kinds of backstories that can turn a person into a villain — or a hero.

Mayor's ensemble cast collectively chips away at different edges of the mystery at hand, each with his or her own personal narrative. While the series' ostensible figurehead is Joe Gunther, Mayor said introducing and developing new characters into his fictional world has always been key.

Joe is predictably decent, so Mayor brought in Willy Kunkle, who's far more troubled, and previous books in the series have dealt with Willy's traumatic backstory. Mayor said he has found Willy to be the character that readers most relate to and care about.

In one passage of Bomber's Moon, Willy compares himself to a particularly seedy section of Bellows Falls. "Willy admired the town, and drew parallels between its condition and his own—and beyond that, all of humanity's. Bellows Falls, and he, never quit struggling against the odds. He had his disabilities and addictions, while BF was saddled with a poor reputation of low-income stressors, including drugs. But they both persevered..."

Nearly everyone in an Archer Mayor novel has something terrible in their past — sometimes multiple terrible things — and the author refuses to dance around them or allow his characters to hide them. Instead, they internally confront and check themselves at every turn.

In Bomber's Moon, for example, Joe comforts a crying Rachel by giving her a business card for his therapist, who in turn later tells her: "Rachel, both you and Joe are virtually driven to be responsible. That is commendable in spirit, but it can be self-destructive. Often, life—especially active, committed lives like you've both chosen—dishes up situations where terrible things simply happen."

It's almost startling to read a book about people who are actively working through their trauma, as literature in general is so heavily populated with those who are not. Mayor applies the same emotional dissection to his villains, though their outcomes are less favorable.

"All of us lead complicated lives. All of us are tormented. If you portray your fellow human beings in this series of books humanely, your readers are going to respond," Mayor said. "I try to make my bad guys bad guys for a reason. They make damn poor decisions, but they do so from a hard place that many of us have experienced."

Mayor himself had an uneven childhood, growing up all over the globe under the wing of his businessman father, who usually couldn't hold down a job. He was a man of integrity, but Mayor, the youngest of six, still experienced his fair share of trauma in childhood, which he mentions in passing but doesn't linger on. "Everybody has a suitcase full of sorrow," he says simply.

The uprooted nature of Mayor's childhood echoed through his early adulthood. He followed in his father's footsteps in many ways, working at publishing houses, newspapers and medical labs, mostly for short periods of time. He was at odds about what to do with himself, but he knew he liked to write, Mayor said.

He moved to Vermont, and his only business plan was to survive — as a writer if at all possible. But Mayor was "at sea," he said, until he became an emergency first responder. As someone who felt like he had never belonged or been needed, he was drawn to the flashing lights of an ambulance or police car and their definitive sense of purpose.

"They were helpful. They were of use. They were out there, doing something," Mayor said. He became a police officer, a volunteer firefighter and an EMT. For the past 18 years, he has worked as a death investigator for Vermont's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He lives in Newfane with his wife, Margot Zalkind Mayor, who runs a small publishing company called Button Street Press.

If a murder mystery can possibly be a love letter, Mayor's books are missives to Vermont and its people.

"I felt embraced by this funny, quirky, thinly populated state," Mayor said. "I wanted to write a series of books that were an homage to those who had embraced me, who had given me a home and given me a purpose, who had put me to use.

"This is not a series of books for money," he continued. "This is an expression of what I need to do. And it's directed to the people who saved my life."

Launching into Bomber's Moon, I understood that Mayor's subgenre of mystery fiction relies on certain tropes and patterns, and that an author's skill lies in how well he or she can manipulate those tropes and continue to surprise the reader. While I began to get an inkling of what happened — and whodunit — three-quarters of the way through the book, it didn't deter me from furiously reading through to the end. Just because you see how a puzzle will be finished doesn't make snapping that last piece into place any less satisfying.

I did wonder, however, about the future of the genre. In 2019, crimes involving law enforcement no longer feel like a black-and-white, good-and-bad kind of story. Of course, for people from marginalized communities, they never did. I asked Mayor whether increased attention toward police violence, including in Vermont, has impacted his work. He said that he's certainly considered this shift in public attitude, but it has yet to affect his stories, mostly because he believes in the general integrity of Vermont's law enforcement officers.

"I remain impressed with the caliber of righteousness," he said of the state's police departments. "We make mistakes. We screw up. We profile, or whatever ... [But] we are more inclined to face it and deal with it. We make the effort, and that's got to count."

Mayor is a genius at unpacking complicated people, unwinding their gears and laying out their baggage to make them more human. It's unfortunate that he can't do the same for the entire country's messy relationship with its real police force. Regardless, Bomber's Moon is a tightly written and engaging bit of escapism in a realistic setting, with characters I can understand and root for. And for now, for me, that is enough.

Bomber's Moon, by Archer Mayor, Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $27.99.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Open Book | Novelist Archer Mayor's characters, and their struggles, hit home"