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 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.
Deerfield Valley News, 11/25/2020
A Thirty-Year-Old Crime
Archer Mayor, The Orphan's Guilt. Minotaur Books, 2020
The book opens as Vermont State Police Officer Tyler Brennan arrests John Rust in a DUI. While the stop is routine, Mayor emphasizes Brennan's cautious approach to John's car: "days when a Vermont cop could almost depend on spending his career without pulling his gun on duty … had been relegated to the past." Brennan's caution is unnecessary; in fact, the two form a kind of bond as the booking proceeds. Casually, John mentions that this is the second time that day he has heard the ticking sound of deathwatch beetles—so called because they can be heard only during vigils for the dead. They are so quiet, in fact, that the damage they do goes unnoticed until investigation reveals that they have destroyed a house's beams from the inside. Brennan assures John that the ticking is only the hot water pipes; and he forgets the beetles entirely, for John says that his brother died earlier in the day. A reader alert for symbols, however, should keep the beetles' hidden damage in mind, for as the plot progresses, it reveals destruction that has been hidden for three decades.
The investigation begins the next day, after John Rust has come to lawyer Scott Jezek about the DUI. Jezek finds that Pete Rust was a totally helpless victim of a birth defect, and that John, whose mother OD'd and whose father left the family, took sole care of Pete almost all his life. Jezek, knowing that John faces jail time (the DUI is his fourth), calls in Private Eye Sally Kravitz and asks her to help him find more about John's selfless service in order to "soften up" the State Attorney. Sally's interviews turn up not birth defect, but the possibility of violent abuse; that turns Pete's death into a twenty-eight-year-old homicide, and lands the case in the office of Joe Gunther, Willie, Sammie, and Lester—the VBI. Gradually, Joe and his colleagues uncover the story of John and Pete's ambitious mother, their grunt-work father ("a bottom feeder on his best day"), and money that initially has no ascertainable source. Following a trail three decades old, the VBI, Sally, and the young reporter Rachel Reiling interview contacts of the Rust family who are still living near Brattleboro. Many of those people have unsavory pasts of their own; others clearly have something to hide. Meanwhile, John Rust has disappeared.
This is the thirty-first Joe Gunther mystery, and as always, readers know they are in the hands of an expert from the first page. Unlike Bury the Lead, which ranged throughout Vermont, this book is set almost entirely in Brattleboro, Westminster West, and Springfield—all carefully and perceptively described. While it has grim scenes enough, it doesn't venture into psychological horror, as did Bomber's Moon. The age of the crime and the number of criminals could, in other hands, make the details of the search slow the plot, but Mayor keeps it moving by developing the characters surrounding Joe Gunther, who is in this case a minor figure. Fans of Willy and Sam will be gratified to witness their warm partnership and the development of their precocious daughter. Readers who enjoyed the incipient friendship of Sally and Rachel will welcome their active part in this investigation. And even the most plot-conscious readers will appreciate the craftsmanship of the book's masterful Prologue and Epilogue. It's a great read.