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“Archer Mayor exposes the seedy underbelly of Brattleboro, Vt., in his mystery novels. But it’s a challenge to bring out the dark side; Brattleboro, and Vermont in general, the author says, are “inordinately pleasant” places.”

Read the story, Brattleboro: Vermont’s Hotbed Of Fictional Crime by Neda Ulaby

Brattleboro Vermont
 © Ken Gallager.
Archer Mayor exposes the seedy underbelly of Brattleboro, Vt., in his mystery novels. But it’s a challenge to bring out the dark side; Brattleboro, and Vermont in general, the author says, are “inordinately pleasant” places.

 

Brattleboro, Vt., is a bucolic town — pricked with picturesque church steeples — and home to a vibrant arts community. So it’s an unlikely setting for gruesome murder and gritty crime, but that’s just what goes on in Archer Mayor’s Brattleboro-based Joe Gunther detective series.

Read, listen to or download the story, Brattleboro: Vermont’s Hotbed Of Fictional Crime by Neda Ulaby

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Mayor is something of an unlikely character himself. Never mind his New England blue blood background — Mayor has had some grisly jobs. He works as a death examiner for the state’s medical office and investigates child sex crimes for the local sheriff’s department. “I don’t think I’ve met too many people like me,” Mayor says with a laugh.

Mayor’s uncle ran the Metropolitan Musuem of Art. His aunt was a famous sculptor. Another relative helped start the Woods Hole Oceanic Institute in Massachusetts. His big sister married Sen. J. William Fulbright.

“My paternal side of my family comes from the old New England lunatic fringe,” Mayor says, “filled with scientists and poets and painters and musicians.”

Mayor has written almost 25 mysteries about Vermont police detective Joe Gunther. And though Gunther is never physically described in the novels, many fans suspect he looks a lot like Mayor. Lean, rangy, crinkly-eyed — kind of an older version of Hawkeye, Alan Alda’s character from M*A*S*H. For his creator, Gunther is like a best friend.

“He’s probably the most decent man one could conceive,” Mayor says. “[He’s] avuncular and thoughtful and supportive and caring.”

Read an excerpt of The Surrogate Thief

But he’s also imperfect. Gunther is unable to maintain a relationship — though he’s friends with all his exes — and he works best with oddballs and misfits. Mayor says this detective fits in a town both working class and a little airy-fairy with a strong hippie and weekender contingent.

As he writes in the mystery The Surrogate Thief:

 Ask anyone in the country about Vermont, and you are almost sure to be given some impression, however inaccurate: From the green mountain boys to maple syrup, skiing, fall foliage and cows. Not to mention civil unions and some surprisingly high-profile, plain-speaking politicians. Vermont tends to stick in people’s minds, if not always benignly. It is a place with a resonance beyond its modest statistics, and for Joe, a world in itself.

The Surrogate Thief is actually about an old murder resurfacing amidst the bloodsport of state politics. Mayor’s mysteries delve into Canadian smuggling rings, pedophilia, extreme environmental activism and — because this is Vermont — shenanigans at ski resorts. They’re some of the most popular books in Brattleboro. According to the director of the local library, Jerry Carbone, Mayor’s books account for one-fifth of the top 100 books in the library’s circulation.
Brooks House, a historic building that was once a hotel in downtown Brattleboro, was badly damaged by a fire in April.
Enlarge duluoz cats via Flickr

Brooks House, a historic building that was once a hotel in downtown Brattleboro, was badly damaged by a fire in April.

Read an excerpt of Gatekeeper

Mayor’s definitely a local celebrity — it’s not uncommon for people to stop him on the street to ask for autographs. But one of the problems with setting mysteries in this quaint, red-brick Victorian town is that it’s actually so nice here, says Mayor.

“Brattleboro, and Vermont in general, is such an inordinately pleasant place,” Mayor says. “I’ll take you to a bad part of town and you will be astonished at how pleasant it looks.”

The “bad” part of town includes an old parlor organ factory, a row of somber slate buildings, and some mildly dilapidated rooming houses. Mayor calls one of them the Misery Hilton. It appeared in his book Gatekeeper, about a surge in Vermont’s heroin traffic. A crumbling old cemetery sits atop a hill where Mayor says you can get “a birds eye view of what the dead can see … if only they could.” Sometimes real police work goes on in the cemetery, Mayor says.

“People do illicit things in graveyards for obvious reasons — they’re off the beaten path, a lot of people find them creepy and therefore don’t visit them much,” Mayor says. “So if you want to do an illicit transaction of one nature or another you might as well do it in a cemetery.”
Archer Mayor is the author of nearly 25 Joe Gunther detective novels. In Occam’s Razor, he sets a murder scene on these Brattleboro train tracks.
Enlarge Neda Ulaby/NPR

Archer Mayor is the author of nearly 25 Joe Gunther detective novels. In Occam’s Razor, he sets a murder scene on these Brattleboro train tracks.

Read an excerpt of Occam’s Razor

Back in downtown Brattleboro, Mayor points out Arch Street, which he says, “is really not a street at all but a crumbling mess of debris and compacted soil alongside and parallel to a curve of the railroad that runs through the backside of Brattleboro.”

There are broken windows, graffiti. Maybe even a crumpled up Ben & Jerry’s ice cream wrapper on the ground. This is Vermont-style gritty. Mayor set a murder here in Occam’s Razor — a homeless man found dead on the train tracks.

It looked like it might have been a suicide because the man’s head was rested on the tracks — but the passing train also obliterated the man’s hands — and conveniently, his fingerprints.

Stories like that one are never drawn from real police work, Mayor says. He draws a clear ethical boundary between his writing and his jobs in law enforcement. At the police station, his colleague, Lt. Detective Mike Carrier, admits he doesn’t read Mayor’s books — “I’ll wait for the movies,” he jokes.

It’s apparently not unusual for cops to avoid mystery novels. Mayor actually doesn’t read them either. Murder happens all the time, he says. “Every day there’s going to be a headline somewhere with a murder in it. It’s unfortunately a way we human being express ourselves — however poorly, I might add.”

Even in beautiful Vermont, Archer Mayor finds shadows among the lush low mountains and pretty little towns, and his detective, Joe Gunther, finds a way to beat them back.
 

Read Transcript, coutesy of WNPR Radio

Heard on Morning Edition
August 1, 2011 – RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For the past few years MORNING EDITION has gone noir in August, profiling crime novelists and the places they write about. Our series Crime in the City resumes this morning in an unlikely locale: Brattleboro, Vermont. It’s one of America’s best small arts towns, highlighted with white church steeples.

NPR’s Neda Ulaby went there to talk to mystery writer Archer Mayor who, as it turns out, is an unlikely character as well.

NEDA ULABY: Archer Mayor and I are tooling around downtown Brattleboro in his pickup truck. And he’s telling stories about his jobs working as a death examiner for the state’s medical office and investigating child sex crimes for the local sheriff’s department. He has also been filling me in about his super-classy, New England blue-blood family.

Your background seems pretty atypical for a cop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

 Mr. ARCHER MAYOR (Crime Novelist): Yeah.

 (Soundbite of laughter)

 Mr. MAYOR: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve met too many people like me.

 ULABY: Archer Mayor’s uncle ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His aunt was a famous sculptress. Another relative helped start the Woods Hole Oceanic Institute in Massachusetts. His big sister married Senator Fulbright. That’s the kind of family we’re talking about.

Mr. MAYOR: My paternal side of my family comes from the old New England lunatic fringe. They’re filled with scientists and poets and writers and painters and musicians.

ULABY: Archer Mayor’s written almost 25 mysteries about Vermont Police Detective Joe Gunther. He never physically describes him, but fans tend to think he looks a lot like Archer Mayor. Lean, rangy, crinkly-eyed; kind of an older version of Alan Alda’s character from “MASH,” Hawkeye. For his creator, Joe Gunther is like a best friend.

Mr. MAYOR: He’s probably the most decent man one could conceive. Not only is he avuncular and thoughtful and supportive and caring, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

ULABY: He’s also imperfect. Joe Gunther is unable to maintain a relationship -though he’s friends with all his exes. And he works well with oddballs and misfits. Mayor says this detective fits in a town both working-class and a little airy-fairy, with a strong hippie and weekender contingent. Here’s a reading from his book “The Surrogate Thief.”

Mr. MAYOR: (Reading) Ask anyone in the country about Vermont, and you are almost sure to be given some impression, however inaccurate; from the Green Mountain Boys to maple syrup, skiing, fall foliage and cows, not to mention civil unions and some surprisingly high-profile, plain-speaking politicians. Vermont tends to stick in people’s minds, if not always benignly. It is a place with a resonance beyond its modest statistics, and for Joe, a world in itself.

ULABY: “The Surrogate Thief” is actually about an old murder resurfacing amidst the blood sport of state politics. His mysteries delve into Canadian smuggling rings, pedophilia, extreme environmental activism and – because this is Vermont – shenanigans at ski resorts.

They’re some of the most popular books in Brattleboro, according to the director of the local library, Jerry Carbone.

Mr. JERRY CARBONE (Librarian): One fifth of all of all of our circulation in the top 100 are his.

ULABY: Archer Mayor’s definitely a local celebrity. People yell at him for autographs while we’re walking down the street.

Unidentified Woman: Can I have your autograph?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: One of the problems with setting mysteries in this quaint, red brick Victorian town is that it’s actually so nice here, Mayor says.

Mr. MAYOR: Brattleboro and Vermont in general is such an inordinately pleasant place. I’ll take you to a bad part of town and you will be astonished at how pleasant it looks.

ULABY: We rattle past an old parlor organ factory, a row of somber slate buildings, and some mildly dilapidated rooming houses. Mayor calls one of them the Misery Hilton. It appeared in his book “Gatekeeper,” about a surge in Vermont’s heroin traffic. Then, an advance up a hill into a crumbling old cemetery.

Mr. MAYOR: I’ll give you a bird’s eye view of what the dead can see if only they could.

ULABY: These leafy green grounds were the site of a secret midnight meeting that went terribly wrong.

Mr. MAYOR: But in fact in real police work there have also been encounters and observances done here. People do illicit things in graveyards, for obvious reasons. They’re off the beaten path. A lot of people find them creepy and therefore don’t visit them much. So if you want to do an illicit transaction, of one nature or another, you might well do it at a cemetery.

ULABY: This one has Gothic atmosphere to burn.

Mr. MAYOR: It has a spectacular view of a mountain right across the Connecticut River from Brattleboro. And it is a sylvan heaven and is just gorgeous.

ULABY: Archer Mayor bumps us back down to town to one of Brattleboro’s meanest streets.

Mr. MAYOR: So this is Arch Street, which is really not a street at all but a crumbling mess of debris and compacted soil alongside and parallel to a curve of the railroad that runs through the backside of Brattleboro.

ULABY: There’s broken windows, graffiti. Maybe even a crumpled up Ben & Jerry’s ice cream wrapper on the ground. This is Vermont-style gritty. And there was an Archer Mayor murder here, a homeless man found on the train tracks.

Mr. MAYOR: It looks perhaps like a suicide because he’s rested his head on the tracks.

ULABY: That’s from the mystery book “Occam’s Razor.”

(Soundbite of a train whistle)

ULABY: But the passing train also obliterated the man’s hands and, conveniently, his fingerprints.

Mr. MAYOR: And so for our well-attuned and observant Joe Gunther, he thinks to himself: No when you commit suicide, you don’t put your hands – funny enough, you’re more protective of your hands.

ULABY: Stories like that one are never, ever drawn from real police work, Mayor says. He draws a clear ethical boundary between his writing and his jobs in law enforcement. At the police station, when he introduces me to his colleague Detective Lieutenant Mike Carrier, I asked what he thought of Mayor’s books.

Lieutenant MIKE CARRIER (Detective, Brattleboro Police Department): Actually, I don’t read his books. I mean I’ll wait for the movies. And, as you can see, he doesn’t have any movies out. So it’s going to be a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYOR: I know. I know. That kills me.

ULABY: Are you curious?

Lt. CARRIER: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYOR: That’s the secret of our success as a team.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: It’s apparently not unusual for cops to avoid mystery novels. Archer Mayor actually does not read them either.

Mr. MAYOR: Murder is just something that we do to each other all the time. Every day. There’s going to be a headline somewhere with a murder in it. And unfortunately it’s a way that we human beings express ourselves, however poorly, I might add.

ULABY: Even in beautiful Vermont, Archer Mayor finds shadows among the lush low mountains and pretty little towns, and his detective, Joe Gunther finds a way to beat them back.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Explore Brattleboro for yourself with photographs and readings that are at NPR.org.

Our series Crime in the City continues tomorrow with a man who’s been called the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.

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