Here’s one death that won’t be mistaken for a hunting accident: The corpse was found on the railroad tracks in downtown Brattleboro, positioned so that the head, hands — and fingerprints along with them — would blow out of town with the evening train. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be a standard vagrant’s suicide. But to Lt. Joe Gunther, protagonist of Newfane mystery author Archer Mayor’s latest novel, Occam’s Razor, it only looked that way. Sure, the hands on the tracks could have been a coincidence, and the deceased was dressed in rags. But the man’s pockets were empty and, most bizarre of all, his underpants were “snowy white.”
The murder is soon followed by two more — a fatal stabbing and the inadvertent freezing death of an infant left behind — and the plot grows more sordid and more complex. As the details of the seemingly unrelated murders emerge, so does one name in connection with both: state Senator Jim Reynolds. The local attorney-turned-Judiciary Committee chairman has been on the stump promoting a bill to streamline the 60-odd police departments dotting the Green Mountain State into one lean, mean force. Although Gunther is not a huge Reynolds supporter, he agrees that the system could use some improvement. He’s doubtful Reynolds is the man to lead the charge, though, given suspicions about the Senator’s involvement in hazardous-materials dumping. Traces of toxins showed up all over the railroad victim. His underpants, it turns out, were about the only clean thing on him.
I’m not sure what it says about us as a culture that clean underpants can so quickly thicken a plot. What they say about Mayor, though, is that he understands how enticing even mundane details are to a reader attempting to solve the crime ahead of the detective and his Brattleboro PD. After all, it’s often simple clues that put the reader on something approaching an equal footing with the folks on the case. That fighting chance at unraveling the mystery, in turn, makes for the most compelling read.
In Occam’s Razor, Mayor honors this process only part of the time. While the novel is rich with familiar motifs — settings you’ve visited, people you’ve met, the dark undersides of small town life that locals lack the luxury of ignoring — this creates only a false sense of certainty about what could explain the murders. No sooner do possible connections materialize than other evidence sails in from left field, blowing down whatever house of cards the reader may have constructed. The title Occam’s Razor, then, proves a tad deceptive. A reference to the theory of 14th-century theologian William of Occam, “Occam’s Razor” proposes that when competing theories attempt to explain the same phenomena, the simplest one is usually the best. The theory relates directly to Reynolds’ centralized law enforcement initiative, but it is not very useful in navigating this novel’s intricate plot. The most critical information arrives — in considerable volume — closer to the novel’s end, creating the disappointing effect that this is a mystery to be witnessed, not engaged with in the way that makes skillfully wrought works in the genre impossible to put down.
Diminishing the impact of Occam’s Razor somewhat is the absence of strong dramatic conflict beyond the crime scene. Those familiar with Mayor’s earlier books will remember the affronts, frame-ups and sundry violence to which Gunther and his supporting cast have been subjected. Here, Gunther’s problem is a bit of middle-aged ennui exacerbated by a live-in relationship that has reached the thrill-is-gone stage. As likable as Gunther may be, his personal stake in matters unfolding around him doesn’t inspire a tremendous amount of sympathy. Gunther himself, though hardly cheered by the prospect of losing longtime love Gail Zigman, a deputy state’s attorney who was raped in 1994’s Fruits of the Poisonous Tree, seems ready to let things run their course. This lack of energy makes the mystery’s midsection; like Gunther’s own, it sags a bit.
Still, fans of Mayor’s nine previous Joe Gunther mysteries are unlikely to be disappointed. Many aspects of his writing that have garnered praise in the past are still strong in Occam’s Razor. As with 1997’s Bellows Falls, the story’s setting acts as a principal character. The way Mayor describes a down-at-the-heels, post-industrial Brattleboro places him in a special category among Vermont writers: those with the brutal honesty to depict the state without a filter of boosterism or sentiment. On a road trip to Montpelier, for example, Gunther riffs on the “untainted natural beauty” myth of Vermont, noting that at one point in the state’s agricultural history, 80 percent of the land had been under cultivation.
Yet Gunther is no cynic. While one can feel the oppressive weight of the “flat, gray skillet of ominous, snow-laden clouds” dogging his trail, one can also identify with the emotional stirrings brought on by a big, fluffy snowfall, at once menacing and magical — “less like an act of nature and more like a spiritual event,” as Gunther puts it. Occasionally the detective plays armchair historian, offering insights on such local topics as the quirky machinations of the state legislature, and a rundown on the centuries-old rivalry between Vermont and New Hampshire. Again, Gunther seems less intent on extolling the charm of our little state than on delineating the social and political boundaries of the place where he does business.
Readers who recognize Gunther’s haunts, as well as those for whom his Vermont is a foreign place, may be charmed nonetheless. Mayor’s sense of place has been consistently praised by critics, leading The New York Times Book Review’s Marilyn Stasio, in her review of 1996’s Ragman’s Memory, to credit the author with making “an honorable art form of the regional mystery.” This time out, Mayor honors the region more than the mystery genre, yielding a novel more scenic than suspenseful.