This is the novel that introduced Vermont detective Joe Gunther, the lead character in a series by Archer Mayor that has now reached twenty-nine books and counting. When we first meet Gunther, he's a detective on the Brattleboro, Vermont P.D. He has bigger things ahead of him, but for now he's assigned to investigate a rare murder in a town that hardly ever sees one.
The victim is a man named Jamie Phillips who has walked into the home of an elderly woman in the dead of night. The woman has been receiving threatening messages; her cat has been murdered, and the person responsible has warned her that he will be coming to give her the same treatment that he gave the cat. Frightened out of her wits, the woman, Thelma Reitz, is sitting in her darkened home with a shotgun in her lap, and when Phillips walks through the door, she lets him have it.
Gunther immediately senses that something is out of whack here, and he becomes convinced of it when he discovers that Phillips and Reitz had both served together on the jury in an infamous murder case three years earlier. A young woman had been sexually assaulted and then murdered in her apartment. A ton of evidence pointed at the building's janitor, a young, black Vietnam War vet named Harris. Harris was tried, convicted and sentenced to prison, and everyone assumed that justice had been served.
In the wake of the Phillips/Reitz incident, though, several other jurors are targeted and Gunther realizes that someone is trying to draw attention back to the Harris case. He begins digging back into the case and discovers that maybe it wasn't so open-and-shut after all. This is potentially embarrassing to his department and to the others who were involved in the case, but Gunther persists, being driven along by a mysterious man in a ski mask who seems to be orchestrating events and who also appears to be one step ahead of Joe and his colleagues all along the line.
It's an interesting and cleverly-plotted story, and Gunther is an immediately sympathetic protagonist. One of the strengths of this series is that Mayor has a gift for establishing his settings, and even in this first novel, the town of Brattleboro and the surrounding environs are expertly rendered. The reader feels as if he or she had been plunged into the middle of a Vermont winter.
A couple of the characters who will accompany Gunther through the series are introduced here, and it's fun to see them all once again as we first met them. This is a series that has remained consistently excellent throughout, and anyone looking for a very good regional mystery series would be hard-pressed to find a better one.