A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors
Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all commercially published fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.
Joe Gunther and His Colleagues Cross State Lines
Archer Mayor, Fall Guy. Minotaur Books, 2022
The book opens on a cold late-winter evening, as Joe Gunther looks down a Vermont hill at the flashing strobe lights dominating the scene he is about to join: the state police, sheriff’s deputies, Joe’s colleagues at the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, the EMS, and the local fire department are gathered around a Mercedes Benz deserted in a ditch. The car, Joe’s colleague Willy Kunkle explains, is registered in New Hampshire to the wealthy Lemuel Shaw; it was reported stolen five days ago, but abandoned recently. Well, not entirely abandoned. There’s a dead body in the trunk, soon identified as Brattleboro resident Don Kalfus. The car’s back seat is filled with unsorted stolen goods, among them several cell phones; one of these is a New Hampshire phone featuring recently-trafficked child porn pictures. That discovery leads to the VBI’s joining their New Hampshire colleagues in the task force Internet Crimes Against Children, thus setting up cross-border cooperation that allows the VBI to retain jurisdictional control over a case that leads them from Brattleboro to the New Hampshire seacoast to the White Mountains.
The case raises many issues, so Joe and his three colleagues quickly set up separate investigations. Joe and some New Hampshire colleagues go after the child porn trafficker; Willie Kunkle conducts interviews with Don Kalkus’s mother and lowlife contacts; Sammie and Lester interview Lemuel Shaw and his wife. Mayor is at his best in such scenes, which all portray the skill with which the VBI colleagues gradually peel away the lies and bluster they encounter. And yet, they all agree, there is something about the case that isn’t coming through. Don Kalfus, a broad-ranging, successful thief, stole both the Mercedes and its contents; so how did he end up in its trunk? One of the cell phones in the Mercedes is an old flip phone, which belongs (or more likely, belonged) to Scooter Nelson, a pre-teen boy whose disappearance some years ago baffled the VBI. In Joe’s words, the boy disappeared without a trace, “as if he’d been grabbed by a flying saucer.” So how, all these years later, could his phone have appeared in the trunk of the Mercedes? Still puzzling over that issue, the VBI learn of another death—and, as Beverly Hillstrom (Joe’s significant other) reveals in the autopsy Joe insists upon, it’s possible that the death was not of natural causes. Gradually, the pieces start to come together, resulting in an electrically exciting climactic scene … followed by a quiet conclusion with an unexpected twist. As always with Mayor, don’t skip to the end.
Fall Guy is the first of Mayor’s mysteries since Bomber’s Moon (2019) that focuses simply on Joe, Lester, Willy, and Sammie, the four members of VBI, instead of also incorporating Beverly Hillstrom’s journalist daughter Rachel and her friend PI Sally Kravitz. The young women’s absence is probably a matter of economy; the case is tremendously complicated, and the VBI’s New Hampshire colleagues add plenty of extra characters. But in focusing on the VBI, Mayor gives himself time to develop the characters of Joe’s three associates, whose lives Joe’s fans have been following for many books. We find that Lester loves Hampton Beach, New Hampshire—but especially when it’s empty in winter. We find that Willy, no matter how difficult with his colleagues, is an artist at drawing out criminals—and we see him stop in the middle of an evening interview to read to his daughter Emma on Facetime. We find that Sammie often feels guilty for being away from Emma, even though she knows the kid is happy. And we see, time and time again, how much Joe Gunther cares for the three people he works with. These touches, along with Mayor’s flair for describing lowlife places like Hughie’s bar or the horrific apartment of Don Kalfus’s mother, furnish a substantial part of the pleasure of reading Fall Guy. Fans can justly look forward to Mayor’s quiet observations, just as they have in the previous Joe Gunther novels, book after book, year after year.