Is Archer Mayor getting bored with Joe Gunther? It's hard not to ask that question while reading The Second Mouse, the Newfane author's 17th mystery set in Vermont and starring the indomitable field-force commander of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Gunther is a stalwart presence in The Second Mouse, just as he has been ever since Mayor's first novel in the series, Open Season. Back then, Joe was a humble Brattleboro police lieutenant. Now he's a "law enforcement legend in Vermont," a veteran crime solver who's also savvy enough to perform complex political maneuvers, such as getting the state's chief medical examiner out from under the thumb of a tyrannical bureaucrat.
Somewhere along the way, though, Mayor's supporting players became more compelling than his hero. Maybe that's why a substantial portion of The Second Mouse is told from the perspective of characters who are, viewed simply in terms of their plot function, the "bad guys." In Chapter 2 we meet a pair of hard-luck, hard-drinking Benningtonians floating in the dangerous orbit of a small-time criminal. A bit of a psycho and a bit of a fascist, ex-biker Mel Martin uses his best friend Ellis Robbinson as muscle and his wife Nancy as getaway driver in schemes that range from mugging a fireman for bingo cash to stealing M-16s from the National Guard.
Weary of Mel's bullying, Ellis and Nancy turn to each other, first for sexual solace and then for a way out of the morass into which Mel is leading them. Soon they're wondering if there's a way to frame Mel as a terrorist, so the Department of Homeland Security will "lock him up forever and not even give him a trial."
Ellis and Nancy aren't too bright, but they are memorable characters. Mayor needs only a few deft strokes to flesh out these people who live on society's twilit borders. For instance, we're told that "Ellis worked to maintain the mental fog he trusted to cloud his better judgment." Or that "In a world of loud men with demonstrative habits . . . Nancy had formed a habit of pegging such behavior to manhood. Anyone not fitting the mold was probably either weak-willed or gay." Ellis's loving relationship with his cancer-ridden mother, who abandoned him as a child, adds a dimension of pathos to his character.
Fine, but what does all this have to do with Joe Gunther? For more than 100 pages, all that appears to connect Joe's current case with Mel Martin and his crew is a town. Gunther is investigating the seemingly natural death of Michelle Fisher, a recovering alcoholic who lived alone in a converted schoolhouse in Wilmington. The house belongs to the father of Fisher's recently deceased boyfriend, an unsavory penny-pincher who was itching to evict her. Like the Martins, the landlord happens to live in Bennington, a county that Mayor tells us "regarded itself as Vermont's black hole." When Joe goes on the road to interview the landlord, the author adds Bennington to his gallery of Vermont town portraits.
Mayor's urban descriptions are masterpieces of observation and economy: In a few, well-crafted sentences, he shows us what makes a place tick. By contrast, the plot of The Second Mouse is all over the place. While Mel Martin nurses aspirations of becoming southern Vermont's version of Scarface, Gunther is off on a side-quest that feels a lot like a tangent. To get access to Michelle Fisher's autopsy results, he has to delve into the problems of Chief Medical Examiner Beverly Hillstrom. Much like the new Fletcher Allen Medical Center where she works, the doctor finds herself compromised by the greed and fraud of others.
For fans of the series, subplots like this are worth the detour. It's nice to see Hillstrom gain some dimensions beyond her usual chilly über-competence, and her interactions with Joe develop his character, too. But The Second Mouse is still a mystery novel, and one consistent requirement of the genre is that the pieces of plot eventually click into place.
Sure, every ambitious mystery will have its dead ends and red herrings, just like a real murder investigation - life isn't a jigsaw puzzle, or an Agatha Christie mousetrap. But we're still waiting for that revelation, that inherently satisfying click the detective's mind makes as it figures things out. In The Second Mouse, Mayor makes the necessary explanations but withholds that crucial moment from us, as if the mystery were almost beside the point. The plot elements amble toward one another and shake hands, but they never quite connect.
Mayor also fails to make good on the delectable irony promised by the title. It's explained by an epigraph he attributes to his daughter: "The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese." That clever chestnut leads us to expect a turnabout in which one character's downfall is another's windfall - better to be the second mouse to encounter the trap. But nobody seems to profit from the events of The Second Mouse - not Michelle Fisher, not hapless Ellis and Nancy, and not Joe Gunther, who's simply trying to keep his life on an even keel as he contemplates more examples of man's inhumanity to man.
As for the readers, we're treated to some fine description and characterization - but also to loads of exposition and the occasional clunker cliché. ("I miss us," Joe's ex-lover tells him.) Given the darkness of Mayor's recent books, maybe it's time he stopped using the whodunit format and tried his hand at a more open-ended literary noir - with a protagonist who isn't Joe Gunther. The real irony of this novel is that no one seems to get the cheese.
From The Second Mouse:
Lying across the broad bed, as if she'd been sitting on its edge in a moment of contemplation before falling back in repose, was an attractive, dead woman.
Matthews kept his word about the promised formalities. "Joe Gunther," he said, "Michelle Fisher."
Joe nodded silently in her direction, and Matthews, knowing the older man's habits, kept quiet, letting him get his bearings.
Dead bodies don't usually present themselves as they're portrayed in the movies or on TV. In the older shows, they look like live actors with their eyes shut; in the modern, forensically sensitive dramas, it's just the opposite - corpses are covered with enough wounds or artificial pallor to make Frankenstein swoon.
The truth is more elusive. And more poignant. In his decades as a police officer, Joe had gazed upon hundreds of bodies - the young, the old, the frail, and the strong. What he'd discovered, blandly enough, was that the only trait they shared was stillness. They displayed all the variety that they had in life, but in none of the same ways. In silent pantomime of their former selves, instead of quiet or talkative, gloomy or upbeat, they were now mottled or ghostly white, bloated or emaciated, transfixed into grimace or peaceful as if sleeping. Nevertheless, for those willing to watch and study, the dead, as if trying to slip free of their muted condition, still seemed capable of a kind of frozen, extraordinarily subtle form of sign language.
That limited communication worked both ways. Everyone Joe knew, including himself, began their interviews with the deceased simply by staring at them searchingly, awaiting a signal. He asked himself sometimes how many of the dead might have struggled fruitlessly to be heard in life, only to be scrutinized too late by total strangers anxious to see or hear even the slightest twitch or murmur.