St. Alban’s Fire by Archer Mayor is the sixteenth paperback mystery featuring Vermont police detective Joe Gunther. Mayor is not the most even or reliable whodunit writer around but St. Alban’s Fire works. This time around a barn fire that kills a young farmer has Joe Gunther investigate a series of criminally set barn fires and look into their connection with a major land deal.
The investigation draws in the Cutts family and they are the best drawn secondary characters in the book. Mayor knows a lot about the pressures of the family farm and manages through the various members of this family to tell all sides of that particular story. His main villain, the torch who set the barns on fire, starts out as your basic Soprano and Godfather mafia hood but quickly becomes an interesting character you definitely want to know more about.
Archer Mayor fans will probably recognize certain formulaic elements in St. Alban’s Fire. In this one Gunther and Willie Kunkle get assistance from the New Jersey police while in the pretty good The Sniper’s Wife it was the NYPD. Gunther’s friend Gail Edwards is still your basic, undefined good guy’s girlfriend with problems of her own. As is often the case, Mayor cannot resist adding more secondary characters than really necessary. He is also unable to resist a couple of red herrings here and there, one of which, who send Gail Edwards the threatening notes that seem to tie into the investigation, he does not address in the end. There are also a couple of plot element resolutions that rely a bit on deus ex machine but what the hell.
St. Alban’s Fire is a satisfying read. Archer Mayor fans will thoroughly enjoy it while those who, like myself, are ambivalent about this mystery writer, will feel this one was pretty good.
St. Alban’s Fire
Warner Books 2006
324 pages plus preview
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