Occam’s Razor (1999)

The Plot

A watershed book full of changes in the making, Occam’s Razor sets the stage for a radical shift in the Joe Gunther series. Beginning with the discovery of an apparently homeless man’s body, draped across the railroad tracks in downtown Brattleboro, the story follows Joe and his squad as they investigate an ever-growing group of suspects-and dead bodies-from the patrons of a down-and-out Canal Street bar, to some gubernatorial candidates in the state capital of Montpelier. The story covers one full year, and by its end, not only have the lives of Sammie, Willy, Joe, and Gail been changed, but-through the enactment of a new state law, so has law enforcement in Vermont.

An excerpt from Occam’s Razor

It was colder without the snow, and felt darker as a result. Even with the starlight and the feeble seepage from the streetlamps around the corner, my eyes took longer to adjust than I expected.

The police officer at the bottom of the Arch Street alley looked up at me quizzically as I hesitated beside car, my hands burrowing deep inside my pockets. “You okay, Lieutenant?” He was stringing a yellow “Police Line” tape across the way.

I shuddered and nodded, walking down the paved incline, careful of its neglected, broken surface. “Sure, Bobby. Still half asleep.”

He lifted the tape to let me pass. “Know what you mean. I been on nights for a week already. Still can’t get used to it.”

He was fresh from the academy, eager and curious, and if statistics were any guide, either destined to learn the ropes with us, and then enter the private sector, disillusioned and bored, or angle a job with the state police, assuming he passed their scrutiny.

“Who’s here already?” I asked him.

“Detectives Klesczewski and Tyler. Officer Lavoie’s with them. Sheila Kelly’s closing the other end off.”

I smiled at his titling everyone except Sheila. It wasn’t sexist. She’d been his supervisor, before we’d let him loose on his own. She was the reverse of the trend, ten years with the Burlington PD, come to us in search of a slightly mellower pace. Bobby looked to her as a kid might to an older sister.

I continued to the corner, where the Main Street buildings above and behind me showed their backs to the train tracks and the Connecticut River beyond. Typical of many old, red-brick New England towns, Brattleboro, Vermont faced away from the serenity and beauty of the river, having chosen well over a hundred-and-fifty years ago to regard both it and the railroad paralleling it as unsightly commercial conduits. In its heyday, this stretch of ground, unseen by the gentry, had been a coarse and bustling string of loading docks and receiving bays, feeding businesses two floors above, whose windows had glittered with the primped and polished end results.

Now the area was forlorn and ignored, a parking place for dumpsters, the homeless, and for teenagers seeking illicit time alone. High overhead, out of sight in the gloom, dotting the curved, fortress-like wall following the river’s bend, were hundreds of dingy rear apartments, an increasing number of which were being transformed into tastefully renovated lofts or rendered by the town’s excess of psychologists and therapists into peaceful, sunlit havens-drawn to the very scenery that their predecessors had ignored. Most, however, still belonged to the marginally solvent-welfare dwellers holed up in small, dark, cluttered dens, surrounded by commerce, and benefiting from none of it.

With theatrical abruptness, a tripod-mounted halogen lamp burst the darkness ahead of me with a brief electrical hiss. It was facing away from me, down and across the tracks, so the effect wasn’t blinding, but more fancifully melodramatic. Its harsh light destroyed any subtlety or nuance, revealing everything in its arc in angular, brittle starkness – while consigning everything outside it to simple nonexistence. The soiled, damaged brick walls; the cinder-stained gravel of the railroad bed; the parallel crescent of gleaming tracks, and the flat black slab of river water beyond — were all briefly frozen in that initial flash of light, like a startled, disheveled partygoer caught in the glare of an instant camera. And just as quickly, it all became mere background to the item at center stage-and the reason for our gathering in the middle of a freezing January night.

Perpendicular to the outermost track, his feet toward the river, lay a man in a thick, long, dirty coat. He had no head or hands-they’d all been resting on the track when the last train had passed by, and what was left of them didn’t merit much description. But they lent the scene its one source of bright color, and to the entire picture a grim sense of purpose.

Standing over the body was Ron Klesczewski, that night’s detective on call. J. P. Tyler, our forensics man, had just plugged in the lamp.

He moved away from its glare and joined me in the darkness, like a technician stepping offstage to check his work. “I didn’t see calling the paramedics. Got hold of everybody else-the ME, the SA’s office, more backup. Gail not on tonight?”

Gail Zigman was a deputy state’s attorney, and the woman I lived with. “No,” I answered. “I forgot to ask who was when I left.” I gestured with my chin down the tracks. “What’ve we got?”

Tyler shrugged. “Little early to tell, and I don’t want to do too much before the ME gets here, but it looks like a bum who ran out of rope.”

“Suicide?” I asked mildly.

“Probably. Although you don’t usually find them with their hands on the track.”

Before moving any closer, I said, more to myself than to him, “Unless he was already dead.”

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