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Barn Razing

Book Review: St. Albans Fire by Archer Mayor


Suspense novels these days tend to open with a teaser. Perhaps it's the influence of TV, where that term refers to a brief, ultra-exciting sequence used to hook the casual viewer before the credits roll. Often the teaser features the gruesome death of some hapless bit player, preparing us for the entrance of the leading man, cop or detective or FBI agent, who will catch the monster and set things to rights. For the teaser's victim, though, the story is over before it's begun -- hence the device's slightly macabre appeal.

The teaser that opens Newfane author Archer Mayor's 16th mystery novel is a doozy. One dark spring night, a farmer's son named Bobby Cutts is too lovesick to sleep, so he goes out to the barn to check on the cows. As Bobby does his rounds and delivers a surprise calf, we learn all about him -- his hopes, fears and deep commitment to the land. A "young man as firmly ensconced in his society as farming was in the only world he knew," Bobby isn't going anywhere -- until the teaser machinery kicks in. When we return to the barn in the next chapter, all that's left of the boy and herd is a heap of smoldering embers.

Who arranged the deadly fire? -- which, it soon becomes clear, was the work of a skilled arsonist. Can Joe Gunther of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation catch the culprit? Any longtime reader of Mayor's mysteries knows that the answer to the second question is yes. Dogged, observant and empathetic, Joe is no cowboy cop from the small screen, but he always gets his man.

Whether he can fix things with the fractured Cutts family is another matter. Marie, the flinty matriarch of the family, has farming in her blood and is determined to succeed in the profession that ruined her father. She's already angry with her husband for willing the barely-breaking-even farm to their daughter and son-in-law, a former delinquent. When her son dies, Marie becomes a Greek fury, spewing vitriol and accusing everyone of some sort of complicity.

But before long it becomes apparent that whatever happened at the Cutts farm wasn't just a family affair. Three suspicious barn fires in as many weeks, each resulting in a land sale, suggest an outsider's motives at work. The pattern leads arson investigator Jonathon Michael to the office of a realtor who wants to get in early on a hush-hush federal scheme to build a bridge across Lake Champlain and site a Homeland Security center in St. Albans.

Meanwhile, Joe Gunther follows the signature of the arsonist all the way to Newark, New Jersey, where he enters a hornets' nest of Mob connections. He brings along his irascible, city-savvy sidekick Willy Kunkle for backup.

With most of his previous 15 novels set in and around Vermont, you can't blame Mayor for wanting to take a field trip now and then. He's done enough homework to present a compelling picture of an urban wasteland, the type of place where cops don't look twice at one man chasing another with a knife.

Still, on a dramatic level, the Newark jaunt is the weakest part of the book. Background exposition comes fast and furious, yet it's hard to imagine overworked city cops spending this much time playing "tour director" for the country mice, as Mayor himself puts it. The Mob subplot pulls in stock characters, from the arsonist leading a Tony Soprano double life, to his luscious, vulnerable mistress, to the patrician family with a black sheep.

When one of the Newark bad guys trails Gunther back to Vermont and endangers the life of Gail Zigman, Gunther's longtime squeeze, the plotline plays out a bit like a movie of the week -- predictable when it ought to be chilling. Even the action sequences have a paint-by-numbers feel.

Mayor is more interested in questions of "why done it" than "whodunit," as he told an audience at St. Johnsbury's Kingdom Books a few weeks ago. He's better at shedding light on murky motives than at constructing elaborate suspense mousetraps, and when he overextends himself in the plot department, as he does here, the results are uneven. A subtheme of the book, the gradual growing apart of Joe and Gail -- who's now a state senator -- suffers from being yoked to the organized-crime soap opera.

Still, St. Albans Fire always comes home. Mayor knows how to deliver insights about human character, sometimes unexpected ones -- as when Joe's rough interrogation of a source makes him feel "an unwelcome, unpleasant, but undeniable adrenaline rush." The Cutts family is the core of the novel, and Marie's defense of traditional farming -- "even with their chemicals and fancy seeds . . . they still need us to make it grow" -- is one of its emotional high points.

In that cruel teaser, Mayor shows us he can marry the hokey dramatic conventions of "CSI" and its ilk to what he does best -- profiling a place and its people. Though the union isn't always perfect, by the end one feels he's done the ill-fated Bobby Cutts justice.