(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Like many other series, Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels are loosely connected but ultimately, discrete, stand-alone episodes in the life of the protagonist. The books can be read out of order or individually without detriment to understanding or enjoyment. Readers who approach the novels sequentially, however, will enjoy following the stories of several of the supporting characters. Although Gunther is the protagonist of most of the novels, he seems to change relatively little. This is not surprising as most of the novels are told from his point of view, whether they are narrated in the first person, as are the earlier novels, or in the third person, as they are from The Sniper’s Wife (2002) forward. Gunther directs his attention outward, not inward.

Although Gunther is at the center of the series and his backstory is painted in considerable detail, he is not described physically. This was a conscious decision on Mayor’s part; he has left the physical details of his protagonist vague so that the reader becomes a participant in the creation of the character. In Scent of Evil (1992) it is revealed that he hails from Thetford Hill, a town on the eastern side of Vermont, and was not a particularly ambitious young man. A voracious reader, he was content to stay around the farm, though it is his brother Leo who eventually stays home to care for their aging mother. Like Mayor himself, Gunther becomes something of a nomad early in life. After fighting in the Korean War and attending college in California, he returned to Vermont, where he married Ellen, who has died of cancer by the time the novels begin.

In the earlier novels, when Gunther is the lieutenant in charge of the Brattleboro detective squad, the cast of supporting characters remains fairly constant. They include Tony Brandt, the chief of police, who is supportive of Gunther and adept at negotiating the often troubled political waters of Brattleboro and soothing the friction between the state’s attorney and the cops on the street. Willy Kunkle, an antihero who is the protagonist of The Sniper’s Wife, is the darkest recurring character in the series, yet he is Gunther’s most trusted sidekick when it comes to action. J. P. Tyler is a studious detective who has been trained in forensics; he is the fastidious custodian of the crime scene, and he is happiest in his makeshift lab, examining the garbage or personal effects of suspects and victims. Ron Klesczewski is the youngest and most idealistic member of the department; he is serious and detail-oriented, with a head for paperwork and computers. Although he is insecure, Gunther supports and grooms him, and after the creation of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation removes Gunther from the Brattleboro force, Klesczewski takes over the detective squad. Sammie Martens, the only female detective in a squad of men, is similarly enthusiastic and often comes close to overcompensating. Her youthful athleticism occasionally shows up the negative effects of Gunther’s sedentary middle-aged lifestyle in crisis situations, as in, for instance, Fruits of the Poisonous Tree (1994).

The most significant interpersonal...

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