Thursday, May 5, 2011

CSI Vermont

This is the twenty-first entry into one of the longest running--and best--regional mystery series out there. Beginning with Open Season in 1988, Archer Mayor has created a memorable cast of characters, headed by the series protagonist, Joe Gunther.

When the series began, Joe was a detective with the Brattleboro, Vermont P.D. Twenty-three years later, he is head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, a state agency that investigates major crimes anywhere within the state. He has taken with him into the VBI a number of the investigators who worked with him in Brattleboro, and readers who have been with this series from the beginning have watched most of these characters grow from young adulthood into something approaching middle age. How close they are to middle age is a bit unclear. Mayor has allowed them to age, but has not tied them strictly to the actual calendar. This is a good thing, because when the series opened, Gunther had already been widowed for eighteen years after being married for eight, which would put him somewhere in his middle seventies by the time he was forced to investigate the crimes in this new book. No wonder the poor guy is tired!

Early in Red Herring, Gunther and his team are confronted with three confusing incidents. One is clearly a murder; another is an apparent suicide, and the third appears to be a drunk-driving accident. Gunther's investigation soon reveals, however, that all three incidents are clearly murder, almost certainly committed by the same serial killer who has left a calling card at each scene--a large drop of blood that obviously does not belong either to the victims or to the killer himself.

Joe and his team turn to forensics experts who will examine the blood samples using equipment far more sophisticated than that available to your average crime lab in the hope of teasing out of the samples some clue that will point the detectives in the right direction. In the meantime, Joe and his team will do the traditional grunt work of an investigation in the hope of producing results.

As is usual in these books, particularly in the later entries, the investigation will take Joe across much of Vermont. And as usual, Mayor's descriptions of his native state, its people, geography and climate are part of the joy of reading the book. By now, Mayor's long-time readers must feel as though they know Vermont nearly as intimately as half of the people who live there.

My one quibble with this book is all of the science that Mayor parades before us. The book involves a good deal of cutting-edge technology and science, and it includes several trips to crime labs, including the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Mayor has obviously spent a lot of time researching the science involved here and apparently spent time at the BNL himself while researching the book.

But like a graduate student who's determined to cram every last note he's taken into his dissertation, Mayor feels compelled to explain all of the science at great length to the point where your eyes glaze over. The plot slows dramatically at these points, and one is reminded of Elmore Leonard's famous advice to writers, encouraging them to leave out the parts that the readers are going to skip over anyway. The science is important to the solution of the crime, but certainly some of this could have been condensed.

Still, that's a relatively small complaint and while this will not rank among my favorite books in the series, it's still a very welcome addition. In some ways, returning to Vermont to visit Gunther and the rest of the cast always feels like coming home.

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