Brattleboro, Vt., is a bucolic town — pricked with picturesque church steeples — and home to a vibrant arts community. So it's an unlikely setting for gruesome murder and gritty crime, but that's just what goes on in Archer Mayor's Brattleboro-based Joe Gunther detective series.
Mayor is something of an unlikely character himself. Never mind his New England blue blood background — Mayor has had some grisly jobs. He works as a death examiner for the state's medical office and investigates child sex crimes for the local sheriff's department. "I don't think I've met too many people like me," Mayor says with a laugh.
Mayor's uncle ran the Metropolitan Musuem of Art. His aunt was a famous sculptor. Another relative helped start the Woods Hole Oceanic Institute in Massachusetts. His big sister married Sen. J. William Fulbright.
"My paternal side of my family comes from the old New England lunatic fringe," Mayor says, "filled with scientists and poets and painters and musicians."
Mayor has written almost 25 mysteries about Vermont police detective Joe Gunther. And though Gunther is never physically described in the novels, many fans suspect he looks a lot like Mayor. Lean, rangy, crinkly-eyed — kind of an older version of Hawkeye, Alan Alda's character from M*A*S*H. For his creator, Gunther is like a best friend.
"He's probably the most decent man one could conceive," Mayor says. "[He's] avuncular and thoughtful and supportive and caring."
But he's also imperfect. Gunther is unable to maintain a relationship — though he's friends with all his exes — and he works best with oddballs and misfits. Mayor says this detective fits in a town both working class and a little airy-fairy with a strong hippie and weekender contingent.
As he writes in the mystery The Surrogate Thief:
Ask anyone in the country about Vermont, and you are almost sure to be given some impression, however inaccurate: From the green mountain boys to maple syrup, skiing, fall foliage and cows. Not to mention civil unions and some surprisingly high-profile, plain-speaking politicians. Vermont tends to stick in people's minds, if not always benignly. It is a place with a resonance beyond its modest statistics, and for Joe, a world in itself.
The Surrogate Thief is actually about an old murder resurfacing amidst the bloodsport of state politics. Mayor's mysteries delve into Canadian smuggling rings, pedophilia, extreme environmental activism and — because this is Vermont — shenanigans at ski resorts. They're some of the most popular books in Brattleboro. According to the director of the local library, Jerry Carbone, Mayor's books account for one-fifth of the top 100 books in the library's circulation.
Mayor's definitely a local celebrity — it's not uncommon for people to stop him on the street to ask for autographs. But one of the problems with setting mysteries in this quaint, red-brick Victorian town is that it's actually so nice here, says Mayor.
"Brattleboro, and Vermont in general, is such an inordinately pleasant place," Mayor says. "I'll take you to a bad part of town and you will be astonished at how pleasant it looks."
The "bad" part of town includes an old parlor organ factory, a row of somber slate buildings, and some mildly dilapidated rooming houses. Mayor calls one of them the Misery Hilton. It appeared in his book Gatekeeper, about a surge in Vermont's heroin traffic. A crumbling old cemetery sits atop a hill where Mayor says you can get "a birds eye view of what the dead can see ... if only they could." Sometimes real police work goes on in the cemetery, Mayor says.
"People do illicit things in graveyards for obvious reasons — they're off the beaten path, a lot of people find them creepy and therefore don't visit them much," Mayor says. "So if you want to do an illicit transaction of one nature or another you might as well do it in a cemetery."
Back in downtown Brattleboro, Mayor points out Arch Street, which he says, "is really not a street at all but a crumbling mess of debris and compacted soil alongside and parallel to a curve of the railroad that runs through the backside of Brattleboro."
There are broken windows, graffiti. Maybe even a crumpled up Ben & Jerry's ice cream wrapper on the ground. This is Vermont-style gritty. Mayor set a murder here in Occam's Razor — a homeless man found dead on the train tracks.
It looked like it might have been a suicide because the man's head was rested on the tracks — but the passing train also obliterated the man's hands — and conveniently, his fingerprints.
Stories like that one are never drawn from real police work, Mayor says. He draws a clear ethical boundary between his writing and his jobs in law enforcement. At the police station, his colleague, Lt. Detective Mike Carrier, admits he doesn't read Mayor's books — "I'll wait for the movies," he jokes.
It's apparently not unusual for cops to avoid mystery novels. Mayor actually doesn't read them either. Murder happens all the time, he says. "Every day there's going to be a headline somewhere with a murder in it. It's unfortunately a way we human being express ourselves — however poorly, I might add."
Even in beautiful Vermont, Archer Mayor finds shadows among the lush low mountains and pretty little towns, and his detective, Joe Gunther, finds a way to beat them back.