A Brief Biography of “Joe Gunther”

———Star of Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther Mystery Series

Joe Gunther Radio Drama

Biographies of real people can be tough enough-all those conflicting sources, rumors, tall tales, and dubiously acquired facts. But the biographies of fictional characters are positively weird. Total fabrications, these folks suffer a past history as potentially vague as the mind of the person who created them. And yet, as their popularity grows, so do the numbers of fans who make them real, and anoint the writer’s haphazard string of “facts” – spun out in tale after tale-with the patina of truth. Witness the tangled web surrounding Sherlock Holmes.

In short, woe to the author who runs afoul of the history he set in motion. All of which brings us to Joe Gunther, who has the additional affliction of being arrested in time (please, no puns.) Having lived a full and interesting life, and achieved a position, both physically and emotionally, in which he is relatively comfortable, he has stopped the clock, and ages no more. As a man in his early to mid-fifties, therefore, and yet as a veteran of the Korean War, we all have to simply take for granted that when he was a combatant, he wasn’t three years old.

Okay. So much for self-serving excuses. Without further ado, and with as little specificity as I can escape with, here is Joe’s story as I presently recall it.

He was born in Thetford, Vermont, the oldest of two sons of a taciturn, hardworking, almost elderly farmer and his much younger wife, who had entered into the marriage to escape a parentless household of too many rambunctious boys, where she had functioned as mother to them all.

A real mother at last, Mrs. Gunther put every effort into doing the job properly, exposing both Joe and his younger brother Leo to books, music, and culture in general, all while her husband toiled his fields with quietly inspiring stoicism.

The final result of this oddly matched parental effort had some mixed results, at least on the surface. While Joe became a cop-stalwart, caring, and slow to anger, with few interests outside books, work, and spending time with his friend and lover, Gail – his brother Leo took a distinctly different route. He never left home, became a successful neighborhood butcher, began collecting a slightly beaten-up stable of vintage cars from the fifties and sixties, and took joy in chasing after women with short attention spans and no interest in marriage. On a more fundamental level, however, their parents’ efforts paid off. Despite their differences, Leo and Joe are both sensitive, hardworking, and intuitively human. For all his seemingly hedonist ways, for example, Leo is a true friend to all, and has chosen to stay at home so he can care for their now invalid mother.

Joe had his rough times, predictably as a teenager, after his father died. Aching to leave the farm and fight in World War Two, his youthfulness prevented his plans until the Korean War broke out and he could finally enlist and vent his frustrations in warfare. A few years later, a freshly decommissioned combat veteran, Joe left his troop ship in California and enrolled in Berkeley for a while, reintroducing himself to the books he always loved, and to a culture as foreign to him as that of distant planet.

Restless, rootless, a little confused, and lacking any sense of purpose, Joe dropped out of college, returned to Vermont, and became a Brattleboro police officer on the urging of a friend-essentially out of the lack for anything better to do.

From that point on, Joe Gunther grew to become the archetypal, old-fashioned, local cop-compassionate, observant, doggedly persistent. As prone to error as anyone, he is slow to judge, willing to admit his faults, and tends to follow his instincts, which more often than not stand him in good stead. He and Gail met an increasingly vague number of years ago, at an outdoor speech by a politician-a logical venue for her, less so for him. Lovers soon thereafter, and a mutually devoted couple for years, they chose to live apart, respectful of one another’s independence. A violent sexual assault on Gail, however, in Fruits of the Poisonous Tree, altered this lifestyle, briefly encouraging the two friends to move in together, and opening Gail’s eyes to the realization that she needed a change in careers-from very successful realtor, to very hard-driving deputy state’s attorney, following a brushing up at the Vermont Law School of her early, but never used, legal education.

Sadly, however, that same series of events also began a spinning out of the two lovers’ long-lasting relationship. Over time and several books, Joe and Gail grow apart, she in pursuit of her political ambitions (eventually becoming a state senator) and he in an ever-growing series of violent criminal cases, one of which almost results in Gail being burned to death by an arsonist.

In the long run, it is Gail who calls it off, primarily citing the fears she has for his safety, but also not ignoring the dangers that his profession seems to bring to her doorstep. This becomes a prescient decision on her part, as thereafter, she runs for and wins the governorship of the state.

Fortunately for those readers interested in preserving Joe’s happiness, all appears not lost. In The Surrogate Thief, he meets a kindred spirit investigating a case in Gloucester, Mass — a bartender named Lyn Silva, who, a couple of books later, moves to Brattleboro, opens her own bar, and becomes Joe’s new lover.

I did, however, say “appears,” because it also seems that happiness is not to be Joe’s long suit. In Red Herring, Lyn disappears from Joe’s life, leaving him heartbroken and a little aimless, and definitely in need of some more challenging cases to focus his mind — an area in which I hope to be of some help.

© 2011 by Archer Mayor