Plenty of mystery novels are cunning variations on a time-worn theme: the good guy finding out which bad guy "done it." Others investigate the dark places in the detective-hero's soul. By the end, we're not sure it's possible to be a "good guy."
Newfane writer Archer Mayor's 15th Joe Gunther novel isn't one of these existential noirs -- his Brattleboro detective remains the quintessential "regular guy," guilty of no more than the occasional, and provoked, outburst of rage. But without subverting its genre, The Surrogate Thief is still an unusually moody and contemplative work. Its apparent mystery is almost too easily solved. The real mystery turns out to involve the twists and turns of human fate.
What makes some people rise in life and others fall? Is it our choices that bring us where we are, or do things just happen to us? These are the sorts of questions that tend to occur to people as they age, and though Joe Gunther tries not to be "maudlin" about his own graying, Mayor's plot gives him occasion to dwell on the events that helped define his life decades before.
In the novel's first two, fast-paced chapters, a domestic-dispute-turned-hostage-crisis results in the discovery of a gun whose bullets match those used in an unsolved Brattleboro homicide from the 1970s. There was nothing particularly sensational about the death of Klaus Oberfeldt, a crotchety shopkeeper who was bludgeoned in his store one night and robbed of his life's savings, and died six months later.
But the cold case has special significance to Joe Gunther, who had tried and failed to solve it. The murder coincided with the rapid death of his young wife from breast cancer. Like Oberfeldt's wife, whom he encountered repeatedly as they both visited their declining mates in the hospital, Joe had to deal with a senseless twist of fate. Now, 32 years later, he finds himself wondering how things could have been different, though it means performing "the kind of emotional gymnastics" he usually tries to avoid.
As he dredges up the past, Joe finds himself questioning his relationship with his long-time but not live-in girlfriend Gail Zigman, a fixture in the series. Passionate lefty Gail has decided to make a run for state senate against a well-funded Republican, and the bustle of her campaign makes Joe feel "like a partisan spectator on the fringes of a crowd." Will finding Oberfeldt's killer help him find peace in the life he made in the wake of his wife's death -- a life without children or a conventional commitment, but not without love?
As Joe's search for the gun's original owner leads him from Vermont to Massachusetts, Mayor displays his talent for deftly setting a scene, evoking complex webs of social and economic determinism in brief, vivid physical descriptions. Orange, Massachusetts, is one of the "places people drive through wondering, 'Why is this place here?'" Then there's Gloucester. Despite the recent invasion of "Hummer-equipped megaconsumers," Mayor observes, it's still "a hard-drinking town, run through with a steady stream of nameless people of no particular address."
Those "nameless people" turn out to be the key to the Oberfeldt case. But they also interest Mayor -- and Joe -- for another reason: Their lives didn't turn out as planned.
The Surrogate Thief is gripping for its portraits of middle-aged loners living "on the margins, making ends meet, and maintaining some dignity at the same time," as Joe's irascible colleague Willy Kunkle puts it. Whether it's the housebound woman with chronic fatigue syndrome whom Joe remembers as a feisty flower child, the guy who's spent his life keeping a low profile because he was once in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the weary, sharp-eyed bartender with whom Joe shares a surprisingly romantic moment by the sea -- none of them thought they'd end up here, and Mayor sketches them with precision and poignancy.
Meanwhile, the mystery plot keeps clicking along. A somewhat contrived twist puts Joe's case on a potential collision course with Gail's campaign, and the resolution of these conflicts holds no major surprises. Fans of action-oriented crime fiction may find the villain and his dispatch a little too sedate, although Mayor has peppered the story with tense chases and confrontations. Readers who are more involved in the psychological drama, by contrast, may wish that Mayor had done more to flesh out Joe's relationships with Gail and his dead wife, Ellen -- who is, by Joe's own admission, less a person than an idealized memory.
If The Surrogate Thief has its rough spots, it still showcases the particular gifts of Mayor, who received the 2004 New England Booksellers Association award for fiction last month. This is an author who can write a gritty, accessible police procedural and stop us dead in the midst of it with insights like Gail's caustic commentary on running for office: "It's like a vendetta. I don't listen so much to all my friends and supporters anymore. I listen instead to the bastards who don't even know me and treat me like shit, and I want to win so I can shove it up their noses."
Success has its price, clearly, but so does failure. "[She] led a sort of wishful life," says the mother of a murder victim -- another of Mayor's swift, powerful character studies. Like the "surrogate thief" of the title, people often find themselves stuck in surrogate lives -- not what they've planned, and certainly not what they'd wish for. But if regret is a powerful force, so is resilience, and Mayor makes it clear that Joe and Gail have what it takes to weather their midlife storms. If evil is painfully banal -- as the novel, taking a cue from Hannah Arendt's famous thesis, suggests -- maybe the regular guys can be the good guys, too.