by Archer Mayor
Published by Mysterious Books
339 pages, 1999
Buy it online
A Cut Above
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Archer Mayor, one of the masters of regional crime fiction, wields Occam's Razor with a sure hand. This 10th entry in Mayor's series about Vermont police Lieutenant Joe Gunther is as crisp and chilling as the New England winter in which it is set.
"It was colder without snow, and felt darker as a result."
With that opening line, Mayor breaks the ice and plunges you into a crime story that alternately shocks and numbs.
In the early hours of a cold winter morning, a shabbily dressed man is found dead on the railroad tracks behind Main Street in the old industrial town of Brattleboro. The man's head and hands have been severed and destroyed by a passing train.
Disturbing clues soon emerge that make it clear this gruesome death was no accident, but murder. Traces of chemicals left on the corpse match hazardous wastes from a truck that was found abandoned in a town parking lot. Gunther suspects that the deceased may have been the truck's driver, for while his filthy outer clothing made him appear to be a street person, his underwear was clean.
Witnesses are found. A group of men who attended a stag party near the tracks on the night of the murder grudgingly admit that they saw a car stop and unload something just before the train came through. Another witness describes a similar car and recalls the license number -- which turns out to be that of prominent local attorney Jim Reynolds, a candidate for governor. Is it a coincidence that police are puzzling over a recent break-in at Reynolds' nearby office? The lawyer assures police there's no need for an investigation, but it turns out that he's hired a private eye on his own.
While the plot of Occam's Razor bristles with leads, clues and red herrings, the investigator at the center of the story is straightforward and refreshingly unflawed. Joe Gunther (whom Mayor introduced in Open Season, 1988) is a man of principles and a cop's cop. He has learned to be wary of politicians, so his heart sinks when he finds out that Reynolds' latest political move has been to propose a statewide reorganization of Vermont's police services. This means that the suspect will be able to checkmate Brattleboro's investigation by accusing the town police of implicating him in order to save their own jobs.
The young cops on the Brattleboro force make up one of the best-drawn supporting casts in contemporary police procedurals. Gunther's investigative team includes Ron Kelsczewski, a promising detective whose career is just getting back on track after a traumatic shoot-out; Willy Kunkle, as tenacious and courageous as he is crude; and Sammie Martens, the only woman on the squad. Sammie is ambitious, abrasive, fiercely loyal and, in this case, seriously compromised -- she's having an uncharacteristic fling with a man named Padgett, who may be a witness to the murder at the core of this tale.
Mayor rides his story hard, slowing down just enough to create depth and texture. Shoot-outs, hostile interviews and chase scenes are interwoven with disquietingly domestic scenes. Gunther's longtime companion, Diane, has become engrossed in her new and dynamic career as a deputy state's attorney. Their relationship, which has developed along with the series, appears to be unraveling. While some writers might overplay this impending loss, Mayor sounds a wonderfully genuine note of male ambivalence towards permanent relationships: "She was slowly drifting off, as yet unaware," Gunther muses, "and I was sadly watching -- pain laced with relief -- as the gap inched even wider."
The gruesome stabbing of a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks -- a highly publicized crime -- deflects police energy and attention from the first murder. But Gunther and his squad keep working on the truck driver's death. They finally hit the jackpot when Billy Conyer, a local thug, is linked to both murder cases.
Wearing armored vests and carrying shotguns, the police raid the sleazy rooming house in which Conyer is hiding out. To Gunther's dismay, they find themselves in the midst of a shoot-out with the suspect:
"Don't move," I yelled again. "Police."
This grisly shoot-out not only costs Gunther and his fellow officers a key witness, but also becomes fodder for Reynolds' campaign to reform municipal police departments.
The book's gray, chilly realism is skillfully offset by humor -- not the outrageous antics of a Joseph Wambaugh procedural or a Carl Hiaasen caper, but subtle Yankee drollery. At one point, for instance, a wily old crone toys with the detectives, withholding information until the police flatter her with sufficient attention. The editor of the weekly newspaper, who imagines himself to be an investigative reporter, gets his facts right but his interpretations wrong and nearly derails Gunther's investigation. And in a particularly wry scene, Sammie Martens' shifty swain beats a hasty retreat after a ribbing from her police colleagues. ("Padgett vanished as if a rope had yanked him clear of the doorway.")
As a crime fiction writer, Mayor has much in common with K.C. Constantine (Blood Mud), who writes the acclaimed Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, police series that often features chief Mario Balzic. Mayor's Gunther is a generation younger, better-educated and more self aware than Balzic, but both characters are fascinating to follow as they try to come to grips with their roles as keepers of the peace in a society that invites violence.
In Occam's Razor, Mayor captures winter in small-town, low-rent New England so well that I kept thinking I could smell wool watch caps burning on the heat registers and feel a mean draft coming under the door. The book is a terrific read, from its simple beginning with the death of a man on the dark railroad tracks to its complex ending with the death of a political career in the state capitol.
The old adage of Occam's Razor suggests that too many theories impede clear thought, but this book transcends that notion. Archer Mayor has set out an abundance of ideas, and carved from them yet another fine story. | January 2000
KAREN G. ANDERSON is a contributing editor of January Magazine.