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Book Notes column: A mystery unravels in the Northeast Kingdom

Rae Padilla Francoeur
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"The Orphan's Guilt"

“The Orphan’s Guilt” By Archer Mayor. Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s. September 2020. 288 pages. $27

“The Orphan’s Guilt” is, among other things, a study on the enduring power of guilt. There’s nothing quite like guilt to burrow in and call the shots.

Archer Mayor’s 31st novel in his popular Joe Gunther series is a carefully plotted procedural that exposes his characters’ complexities little by little. The action takes place in and around Burlington, Vermont - a magnet for quirky people, Gunther’s team of talented detectives included.

What starts out as a DUI balloons into an investigation of related suspicious deaths, assaults, kidnapping, thefts, paternity, romantic entanglements and more. The crimes go back decades. At the heart of the story are John Rust, 40, and his invalid brother, Peter, who dies at the age of 28. Peter is only 60 pounds when he dies of irreversible brain damage.

When the novel begins, John, Peter’s longtime caregiver, is pulled over for his fourth DUI after a grief- and guilt-stricken bout of drinking. Peter died just hours earlier. After the arrest, John consults Burlington attorney Scott Jezek, hoping for a way to avoid jail time. Just freed after two and a half decades of service to Peter, John’s likely headed for confinement of a different sort.

Gunther is the lead investigator at the Vermont Bureau of Investigators - a special unit with special powers. He is considered a star among the state’s investigators. He’s smart, self-effacing, good at leaning on his team’s talents, collaborative and empowered to bypass bureaucracy to solve major crimes. As readers learn, Vermont is a small state when it comes to people and their interconnectedness. His long-term lover, Beverly Hillstrom, is the state’s medical examiner and the mother of Rachel, an energetic reporter for The Burlington Reformer.

What drives Gunther’s investigation at first is the question of Peter’s vegetative state. The midwife says Peter was a healthy newborn. Others report that Peter changed shortly after his birth, likely due to something his father, Daryl, did. John called the police the night it happened, but later, he and his parents circled the wagons. The next question to emerge has to do with the money John had to care for Peter. Both Peter and the house were extremely well cared for but John worked as an underemployed web designer from home. Where did the money come from?

Just as the characters are revealed, one layer at a time, so too are the mysteries Joe and his team must solve. Peter and John’s father, Daryl, abandons his sons, leaving John to care for Peter when John is 18. John’s conniving mother dies of a purported overdose two years earlier. Most likely both parents were involved in multiple schemes involving theft and blackmail. The web of criminal activities broadens as the investigation continues.

The procedural thread in this story tends to overshadow character though Mayor does his best to balance the two. This is the 31st Joe Gunther mystery novel, making character development and character revelations more challenging for the author. Many of the characters Mayor introduces later in the story are of the nefarious sort. Characters we do get to know well from the start are Scott, the attorney who wants to help John with his DUI charge. John is a great character whose activities begin and end the book but he goes missing for most of the action. His absence and the reasons for it do tend to keep the pages turning.

Other likable characters are Willy Kunkle, a detective and former combat sniper. Among his war injuries are a withered left arm and PTSD. He’s like a three-legged pit bull, fierce when necessary but big-hearted with friends. Sally, the young private investigator Scott uses, works fast with great results. Scott, after two decades of success in Boston, can afford to be a generous, compassionate defense attorney in Vermont. When he winds up in a scary predicament, we worry.

Sally’s good friend, Rachel, the reporter, has pit bull tendencies herself. Her collaboration with Rachel is unique, but both young women are professionals. Their joint search for information must be carefully managed. That collaboration expands when Joe invites Sally and Rachel to work with his team at a critical turn in the investigations. Joe’s move is rather daring. Fortunately the boundaries remain well defined.

What people won’t risk for money. Family, marriages, friendships, status in the community, even community well-being are cannibalized by a handful of miscreants. Procedurals like this one, where layers are peeled back to reveal more and deeper rot, cannot be second-guessed but they can be enjoyed.

Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at rae.francoeur@gmail.com.