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red herring

27 december 2010

A typical public-library experience for me: I grab a crime novel that looks intriguing, and it turns out to be the second or third in a series where I've never even heard of the first. A tactical dilemma: do I jump into the series in media res, or do I go back and read from Book One? And if I always go back to Book One, how will I ever catch up in all the series I've started?

Imagine my horror to pick up Red Herring: A Joe Gunther novel and discover that it's not the second or third in Archer Mayor's Vermont murder series, but the twenty-first. Now, anything's possible: I could be washed up on a desert island tomorrow with nothing but a volleyball and the first twenty Joe Gunther novels to keep me company. But barring something of that order of magnitude, I doubt that I will ever read the entire Joe Gunther series.

I do want to make a stab at it, though, because Red Herring is a neatly-constructed, tautly-written murder mystery. In lovely but mildly depressing Vermont, there are about 12 murders a year (as Joe himself, chief inspector for the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, notes). But of course, in the manner of many a northern-clime detective series, statistically anomalous homicide is a paradoxically everyday occurrence. Joe connects three deaths to a single serial killer: one obvious murder, and two that have been concealed as suicide and DUI death, respectively.

The killer is too clever for his own good. He has left behind a drop of blood at each murder scene. Not his own blood, and not any of the victims'. What our perp hasn't bargained on is the VBI's connections to top scientists at Brookhaven, Long Island. These Poindexters run tests on a hyper-microscope called the Synchrotron. The Synchrotron can find not just your CSI-Miami level of trace substances: latent fingerprints, hairs, carpet fibers. It can also find atomic residue from stuff that has come into contact with fingerprints: for instance, traces of what was on the rag a criminal used to wipe his fingerprints away.

In other words, criminals of the world, you are fixing to be screwed. Unless you commit all your crimes in a science-fiction-like clean room, the science-fiction-like Synchrotron will catch even your attempts to hide them.

Of course, the Synchrotron can only tell the cops what molecules you're toting. It can't (yet) give them your name and SSN. To get the latter information, Joe Gunther's men and women must get out and do the police procedures that northern novel cops have been doing since the days of Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

In this respect, Red Herring recalls the great-grandfather of all procedurals, Edgar Allan Poe's "Purloined Letter." In Poe's tale, the most powerful microscopes available to the police of his day are not sufficient to catch the dastardly thief. The detective must also employ psychology, in particular the power of sympathy to tease out the motives for criminal actions. Joe Gunther takes the raw results of the Synchrotron and turns them into a perfect reading of a killer.

But like his Swedish analogue Kurt Wallander, Gunther finds himself "one step behind." The novel ends with a twist that both saddens and satisfies. Not to spoil anything, but: for most of Red Herring, Joe is happier and better-adjusted than such cold-country criminalists as Wallander, Martin Beck, Erlendur, and Nathan Active. His tribulations seem mostly in the past. But as Red Herring develops, Joe is handed bunches of new loads to bear. It will be interesting to see how he copes with them in the 22nd Joe Gunther novel.

Mayor, Archer. Red Herring: A Joe Gunther novel. New York: St. Martin's, 2010.