Aside from the intricate but never unduly convoluted plots, the most noticeable quality of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther novels is their strong evocation of—and affection for—their setting, Vermont. Mayor’s familiarity with the small New England state is evident throughout the novels. The appearance of the landscape and the character of the towns and their inhabitants are Mayor’s concerns as much as are the infrequent crimes he describes and the understaffed law enforcement agencies that solve them. Mayor is very much a regionalist.
Although it is one of his most interesting characteristics, Mayor’s allegiance to Vermont is also one of his greatest challenges. In choosing to set more than a dozen murder mysteries in a small, sparsely populated state that has averaged no more than seven murders a year, Mayor has set himself a difficult task; it is a testimony to his talent that he has kept the novels fresh and the plots credible. Most of his early novels are set in Brattleboro, but later in the series, Mayor broadens his canvas to include all of Vermont. Occasionally, Gunther travels to cities such as Newark or Chicago to solve Vermont-based crimes. Mayor has stated that he likes to work in Vermont because it is a small state where everybody is aware of everybody else. For some characters in his novels, this ease of access to local and state authorities is a blessing; for others, the lack of anonymity is a curse.
In an interview, Mayor listed a number of authors whose work he enjoyed, and in many cases their influence on him is evident: Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Maurice Leblanc, Georges Simenon, and Ross Macdonald are some of these authors. Mayor, however, synthesizes these influences and takes them in a different direction, in part with the small-town and rural settings he uses, and in part with the very nature of his protagonist. Joe Gunther does not have the flamboyant or strong personality of many protagonists in detective fiction; he is a man of strong character but not overpowering characteristics.
Mayor’s Joe Gunther books have received positive reviews in major newspapers as well as in publications devoted to mystery and detective fiction. He is also a recipient of the New England Book Award for fiction from the New England Booksellers Association.