Local literature suggests that class divisions are alive and well in Vermont. Sandaled flatlanders who wander into the upper reaches of the Northeast Kingdom may find themselves feeling like journalist Tim Brookes, who writes in his recent The Driveway Diaries about a testy negotiation with a used lawnmower salesman based in a trailer-park: "I was buying a fifty-five-dollar adventure among the working poor."
An "adventure among the working poor" is one way of describing Wheelock author Don Bredes' new mystery novel The Fifth Season -- though it's cheaper than Brookes' lawnmower. Like Eric Rickstad's 2000 potboiler Reap, Bredes' novel takes us deep into a North Country landscape populated by outdoorsmen with long grudges and short fuses. The title is practically a Vermont in-joke -- we don't need to be told that the "fifth season" is all about the mud. When murders start happening in the Kingdom hamlet of Tipton, at the end of one of the iciest winters on record, one possible motivation is a town official's refusal to grade a road.
Bredes' carefully constructed plot pits old-time Vermonters against newcomers. More importantly though, it pits town constable Hector Bellevance, who doesn't fall clearly into either camp, against them all. Bellevance narrates the novel. Raised on a Tipton farm, he drives a pick-up and knows his way around woods and guns. He's also a Harvard grad. Though his current occupation is growing organic vegetables for market, he has a murky past as a Boston cop accused of indulging an itchy trigger finger.
In Bredes' previous mystery, Cold Comfort, Bellevance returns home to Tipton to lick his wounds and is recruited by the town clerk for "a little light peacekeeping." In The Fifth Season, he gets more than he bargained for when he serves a relief-from-abuse order to Marcel Boisvert, the town road commissioner, who's "a direct descendant of the first Abenaki landholders in the valley and as untraveled and hard-hearted as the granite monadnock that overlooked it." Marcel isn't about to vacate his homestead. When the town clerk who wrote the order and the sheriff who enforced it are shot point-blank, the road commissioner becomes the chief suspect. But Marcel is nowhere to be found. Mean-while, there's the little matter of a mummified human hand that a farmer's beagle has dragged home.
In a town where everybody knows everybody, the mystery hinges on relationships, both chosen and forced. Marcel Boisvert's opposite number and nemesis is Vaughn Higbee, a well-heeled, unctuous "hip professor" at the local college, who wed Marcel's beloved daughter Kathy the day after her graduation. Outraged, Marcel disowned Kathy. When she died in an accident, her young son became a point of contention between Shirley Boisvert, who wants to mother the boy, and Marcel, whose bitterness runs too deep.
It's a conflict with deeper cultural ramifications. Even Bellevance, the local boy made good, resents Vaughn's "presumption that his advantages gave him some special standing." Shirley Boisvert, who can't accept that the professor would rather see his son in daycare than with his grandmother, complains, "Back when we was raising kids, we took care of them. We were a family... Society today teaches parents to think of their own selves first."
As Bellevance negotiates his way between these two cultures, he has his own problems to deal with. He's got a great girlfriend -- Wilma Strong, a sassy, take-no-prisoners "girl reporter" straight out of a screwball comedy. But when she gives him some big news, Hector has to re-evaluate his life choices. Meanwhile, the state police lieutenant is doing his best to keep the "overqualified" town constable from playing detective -- particularly as he is also a suspect in the killings.
Like many mystery writers, Bredes front-loads his slim novel with subplots and shady characters, creating a stifling atmosphere of mistrust that doesn't always pay off in revelation of evil doings. But, if some threads are left hanging at the end, Bellevance's voice is steady in guiding us through the labyrinth. His renegade edge is blunted by down-to-earth self-deprecation. "I am a fuckup," he shrugs to another cop who suggests that others might think as much. Despite his angsty past -- a cop-novel cliche if there ever was one -- Bellevance feels real, whether he's making good use of his two fists or drinking beer with his half-brother Spud, who's building a corn maze for tourists in an effort to keep the family farm afloat.
Bellevance is also a keen observer of his world. Bredes' prose has a diamond-hard precision and clarity, whether he's describing a seedy truck stop or the endless permutations of mud and snow in the Vermont landscape. The cliffs above Arrow Lake are "a sinewy façade of shifting colors... bearded this morning with columns of pale blue ice." Snow lies in a thawing field "like wads of newspaper." From an air balloon, snowshoe tracks look "like a laurel garland stenciled into the ice." The reader doesn't get bogged down in these deft descriptive passages, and the fast-paced dialogue goes down easy and rings true. If The Fifth Season gives its readers a guided tour through the lives of "working poor" in the Northeast Kingdom, it's no sideshow. By the end, we may feel we know the hard-bitten inhabitants of Tipton -- and also that, when it comes to Vermont gothic, Bredes can give down-state author Archer Mayor a run for his money.