In "Trace," Archer Mayor's 28th Joe Gunther novel in 28 years, the three hard-working detectives of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation are faced with three complicated cases at a time when they are left without their trusty leader. Joe is in St. Louis, having volunteered to take his mother, ailing with Lyme encephalitis, to a special rehabilitation hospital. And wouldn't you know it, as soon as he's on the plane with Mom, the new complicated cases hit the fan and off goes the VBI in hot pursuit.
Don't get me wrong. I've been an avid Gunther/Mayor fan since the beginning of this series as Joe has moved steadily from the Brattleboro Police Force to the VBI, accumulating his tight group of regular detectives, Willy Kunkle, Sammy Martens, and Lester Spinney, along the way. Over the years, there have been some interesting developments among this cast of characters, primarily the relationship between Willy and Sammy that has resulted in little Emma, and Joe has had a series of love interests, but change and character development have not been major emphases. Similarly, while one of the VBI detectives has occasionally taken a trip to New York City or Springfield, Mass., in pursuit of justice, they largely stick to Vermont, and let's face it, Vermont is a small state with a limited population that can be somewhat constricting in terms of sustaining a long series of detective stories. Again, in the past Mayor has proven to be creative in his use of contemporary events, working Hurricane Irene into a prior book.
Which brings me to Trace, a tale which appealed to me at least in part because the early action takes place in my own next door neighboring town of Windsor at the railroad tracks and depot restaurant where I have taken my 3-year-old grandson to watch the train and wave to the conductor. Despite that, however, I found my attention wandering as Willy chased down a bad guy who was defrauding the U.S. military based on three bloody teeth and a burned lithium battery found on the tracks by a young child. Sammy's pursuit of a bad guy who had murdered a young African-American woman who had fallen in with an abusive Albany lobbyist was even more of a stretch for my attention. Lester, on the other hand, showed the usual detailed Mayor police procedural creativity and energy in his re-opening an old cop killing case which had appeared to be straight forward. Even without Joe's presence and avuncular help, all three cases are solved, and the bad guys (or in one case bad gal) are brought to justice.
Meanwhile, Joe spends nearly the whole book in St. Louis with Mom, who showed rather miraculous spunk in rapidly bouncing back from what should have been a long drawn out recovery from Lyme. I was also somewhat incredulous at the ability of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to transfer her within hours of admission to an out-of-state rehab institution with no hitches about referral, insurance, delays in lab results, and the inevitable slow grinding of the medical system wheels, but that's the author's prerogative. I think, however, that this device to get Joe out of town was an unnecessary stretch. How about just having Joe take a much-deserved vacation in Antarctica where he can't just return immediately?
The bottom line for me is that after 25-plus years of thoroughly enjoying Joe and his VBI colleagues, it felt in Trace that Archer Mayor and/or Joe Gunther might be running out of gas. This phenomenon is not unusual in long-running detective series. Sue Grafton is staggering towards the finish line of her alphabet series with private investigator Kinsey Milhone, having just published "Y is for Yesterday." Some of the late letters in the alphabet mystery series have paled compared to "A is for Alibi," which appeared 35 years ago! Another favorite of mine among detective series writers is Michael Connelly who finally had Harry Bosch of the LAPD retire after nearly 30 books in 25 years. Connelly then wrote a wonderful book "The Late Show" that features a new detective, Renee Ballard, who promises to be a keeper for years and volumes to come. Harry Bosch is evidently scheduled to return in a new book scheduled for release in late October, but Connelly's writing about his new character has a freshness and zing lacking in his recent Bosch books.
I love the humanity, creativity, and pace of Mayor's writing, and who could ask for a better backdrop than Vermont? But I think it's time to have Joe, Willy, Sammy, and Lester ride off into the sunset on Route 9 and bring in some new blood. It would be a shame for Vermont to lose its niche in the Mystery section of our favorite bookstores. Mayor still has the stuff to give us an annual delight, though I hope it might be a bit different in the future.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at email@example.com