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TRACE
by Archer Mayor
Minotaur, September 2017
336 pages
$25.95
ISBN: 1250113261


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

You know the signs: the margins get wider, the plots get thinner, the characters keep making the same jokes and the same mistakes. It's hard to keep a series fresh, and many fine mystery writers become trapped in their own successful formula, phoning in entries after the excitement is over but the market wants more. Not Archer Mayor. In the 28th entry in his excellent Vermont-based Joe Gunther series, his characters continue to be interesting, his plots are meaty and rich with detail, and the pacing strides along confidently. It's a mark of the author's virtuosity that in TRACE he has no fewer than three plots on the go, and for an extra challenge he pushes his protagonist to the sidelines to give the other series characters center stage.

When Gunther's elderly mother contracts a particularly serious form of Lyme disease, he takes her to a clinic in Missouri, appointing a trusted detective as his deputy. Heading up the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, even temporarily, isn't Sammie Martens's idea of a good time. Not only does she hate the paperwork, it makes things awkward with her husband, a misanthrope who famously has problems with authority. He's reluctant to report in on a case he's pursuing independently, as always. He's not even sure it's a case. A few broken teeth and a strange piece of electronics found on railroad tracks not far from a station? It could be nothing. But something about it makes his intuition kick into high gear.

Meanwhile a colleague is tipped off to a strange flaw in the stored evidence of an old case nobody wants to reopen. It might reveal that a cop killed on the job in a dramatic shoot-out wasn't the hero everyone thought he was. Add to the mix, a simmering threat involving the daughter of Joe's girlfriend. She's taken a young woman, newly arrived in Burlington with nothing but the clothes on her back, under her wing. She suspects the girl is running from something, but has no idea it's a violent and ruthless man who uses his career as a lobbyist as cover for abusive and controlling behavior.

For most authors, these would be too many threads to weave competently together, keeping each of them equally interesting without risking readers losing the plot - or plots. Yet the transitions between these story lines and the characters involved in each are handled with narrative skill, a master class in how to write 28 books about the same police team while keeping it fresh.

The Joe Gunther series takes the elements of the classic police procedural to explore human relationships not just the interactions between police and their communities, but also the interactions among one another as co-workers. Conflict between an incompetent, uncaring boss and subordinates is a police procedural cliche, but not here. Gunther's concern for building a team and for treating each member decently provides a throughline for the series. One of the pleasures of the subgenre is that it embraces as a setting the a place so many of us spend a majority of our waking hours, the workplace, making it an important part of the story. In TRACE, Archer Mayor uses that setting, as well as the paths three detectives take to solve their cases, to satisfying effect.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, November 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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