If you are not already a fan of Special Agent Joe Gunther, you may be surprised to find that this busy detective plies his trade in bucolic Brattleboro, Vermont. There is a strong association in our culture between big cities and crime, and, as a result, between big city settings and mystery novels. But as fans of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache can attest, small towns have their share of mayhem and murder.
In Paradise City, Gunther and his team of quirky characters from the (fictional) Vermont Bureau of Investigation go as far as scenic Northampton, Massachusetts, to unravel a strange knot of burglary, murder, and human smuggling. Northampton, Mass., “where the coffee is strong and so are the women”? Yes, that Northampton.
Relying on readers who haven’t collected the previous twenty-one Joe Gunther novels to bear with his leisurely, easy-reading scene-setting, author Archer Mayor – a Vermonter himself who, when he is not writing, is actually an investigator for his local sheriff’s department — spends the first two chapters of the book laying down the woof and warp of the plot. He introduces us to some of the small-time criminals whose botched break-and-enter job first grabs the cops’ attention, as well as Mina Carson, whose sweet old Aunt Billie is their target. By the time we meet Joe Gunther we are holding the threads that will be woven through the story as it moves from Boston to Vermont ski country to tony Northampton.
In real life, Paradise City is a series of art and craft shows that take place in Northampton, MA (not to be confused with the Guns N’ Roses song of the same name). In Paradise City, a series of burglaries also focusing on art and jewelry lead Joe – and the reader – to more serious crimes: arson, murder, and a secret workshop in an abandoned warehouse where smuggled illegal immigrants work as slaves.
Along the way we learn about the private lives, past histories, and current emotional struggles of our small cast of familiar Vermonters. An artist manqué-turned-jewelry magnate, his louche girlfriend, a brave and quick-witted Chinese slave laborer, and the mastermind we only meet at the end — a very strong woman indeed – round out the cast for this episode.
Paradise City will not win any prizes for literary excellence, nor for editorial acumen. Clunky language is common, descriptions of place and of people are purely functional, stereotypes abound. There’s a hard-bitten but good-hearted detective whose demons drive him into danger, a lonely cop whose past heartbreak prevents him from finding love again. There’s also the younger woman who uses sex to control her weak, aging sugar daddy, and the rich bitch whose brilliant mind has been twisted by maternal rejection in childhood.
But the plot and its settings are refreshing, connecting the global reality of desperate illegal immigrants forced to slave for their smugglers to more mundane and local crimes. If the characterizations are unsubtle, the story nevertheless moves along at a pleasurable clip – if you don’t mind a few meandering detours into Joe’s past — and Joe Gunther and his coworkers are engaging folks. The story is more complex than it seems at first; there are a few good turns in the road and several moments of suspense. You won’t find yourself holding your breath, but you will keep turning the pages and rooting for the good guys.
Fans of Joe Gunther can meet the man who created him at Montreal Mystery Night, part of Paragraphe Bookstore’s Words After Dark series.
Archer Mayor will appear along with Canadian mystery writers Linwood Barclay, Giles Blunt, and Montrealer Peter Kirby at the Maxwell Cummings Auditorium on October 28 at 7 p.m. Tickets available at Paragraphe and at the Westmount Library.
Elise Moser’s first novel, Because I Have Loved and Hidden It, was published by Cormorant Books. Her second book, a novel for young adults, will appear in 2013.