It's anybody's guess whether the title of Archer Mayor's latest detective novel will help or hurt book sales. The Sniper's Wife was written well before the recent serial murders by gunmen in the Washington, D.C., area, and the Vermont author intended the more specific, military definition of the word "sniper." Still, Mayor could not be blamed for having a little anxiety about the timing.
But he should have no worries otherwise, because The Sniper's Wife, his 13th book in the Joe Gunther series, ranks among his very best. It stands out for another reason, too: It's not about Joe Gunther. A dozen previous books were written in the first person from the point of view of the Brattleboro-based police detective, a thoughtful, middle-aged guy with the tenacity of a bulldog and a humanity that engenders devotion from both his colleagues and his longtime love interest.
Perhaps feeling the need to reinvigorate the series, Mayor invented a new device two books back: the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, a statewide agency which Gunther heads up. The author devoted considerable text to explaining the new agency, its place in the law-enforcement food chain and why every cop in Vermont seemed to resent it. Even keeping the acronyms straight was a challenge. But just when longtime fans of the series were getting used to that, Mayor pulled an even bigger surprise. And it's a doozy.
The Sniper's Wife is written in the third person and focuses on Gunther's right-hand man, Willy Kunkle -- a compelling character even though he could accurately be called a real asshole. Not to mention embittered, sarcastic, cynical and tortured by personal demons that claimed him long before he was, yes, a sniper in Vietnam. Willy's other cross to bear is a disability: the bullet-induced paralysis of his left arm. His redeeming qualities are unerring instincts as a detective -- the main reason Gunther has defended his sneering presence on the police force for many years -- and his awkward tenderness for fellow detective Sammie Martens.
Along with the change of protagonist in The Sniper's Wife comes an equally radical change in locale. In Chapter 1 the story leaves the Green Mountain State for the taller, murkier pastures of New York City -- Willy's hometown -- where he's called to identify his ex-wife's corpse. Mary Kunkle, abused by Willy in his former alcoholic days and divorced for some years, has died of a heroin overdose in her Manhattan apartment. The NYPD has dismissed it as a suicide, but Willy's not convinced. Since he has no official authority in New York, and does have a guilt-ridden compulsion to solve the crime, Willy acts alone, risking life and what limbs he has left in a dangerous urban underworld.
From beginning to end, The Sniper's Wife is not only charged with page-turning action, intriguing, believable plot twists and minor characters, but also with Willy's harrowing psychological journey deep into his past and back again. As always, Mayor is satisfyingly thorough when detailing the minutiae of police procedure -- in this case the unorthodox collaboration of an obliging New York precinct veteran detective with "guests" Joe Gunther and Sammie Martens.
Mayor has always excelled at describing place, and in this volume his prose is liberally sprinkled with eloquent passages describing the neighborhoods of Manhattan and the immigrant histories that created them. From Washington Heights to the Lower East Side, Willy's nighttime reconnaissance missions echo his chilling experiences in Vietnam while gradually revealing details of his wounding childhood. Mayor leads the reader around the present-day island -- the parts tourists never see -- as well as back in time. Remarkably, he does this without breaking the dark mood or pacing of the story.
As it turns out -- with heart-racing urgency in a labyrinthine abandoned prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire -- The Sniper's Wife is more than a tour; it's a tour de police force.