10 Feb 2006
Call it bookman’s snobbery, but it seems like far more novels are published in hardcover than deserve the honor. The cardboard bindings, generous type and colorful wrapping gives the feeling that what you hold in your hand is a work of lasting value. It’s saying this is not just a paperback story whose pages age into brittleness as fast as you turn them.
Archer Mayor’s series about Vermont detective Joe Gunther well deserve the hardcover treatment. His seventh book, “The Ragman’s Memory” is a richly crafted tale that begins with the discovery of a hank of human hair in a bird’s nest, and grows into a web of interrelated murders driven by greed, insanity and pride.
It’s also a book whose plot should not be summarized further. Even reading the jacket copy would spoil the fun of watching Gunther — competent and bland but surrounded by a great supporting cast — start with a small girl’s wonderment at the hank of human flesh she found, and follow that thread as it grows and turns tangled and convoluted. It’s a mandlebrot of a plot. The closer Gunther and the rest of the Brattleboro police force look, the more details appear, the list of suspects grow, and the implications and dangers of what they find increase.
Mayor tells his tale with carefully chosen words that economically reveals its details without padding. His writing is focused and sometimes intimate at unexpected moments, whether spotting a detective with an unusual method of passing the time at stakeouts, or creeping into the mind of a World War II veteran unable to leave the Battle of the Bulge.
Acting as the amphitheater for this morality play is Vermont, a state of rugged, sometimes heartbreaking beauty, mashed against the reality of industrial towns that have outlived their usefulness but which survive on sheer inertia. It’s a landscape as compelling as Chandler’s Los Angeles or Hillerman’s New Mexico, and Mayor’s skill renders the Green Mountain State with sympathy and beauty.