The Second Mouse is another novel in the Joe Gunther mystery series by Archer Mayor. The best point of the book is on page one: “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Intriguing, unexpectedly amusing, and sporting more than a grain of truth, it beckons the reader to turn the pages and wonder who is the mouse?

Is it competent but straight-laced and unassuming Joe Gunther of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation who has a distinct nose for a case that just doesn’t seem right? Is the second mouse generally disliked Newell Morgan whose disruptive and decidedly abusive personality garners only minor complaints from irritated neighbors and whose highly substantiated alibi is almost too good to be true?

There is also beautiful Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Beverly Hullstrom who could get the last laugh and scamper away with the havarti. Perhaps Michelle Fisher would be vindicated in death, or would Mr. Martin, a blue collar worker with no loyalties, as many scruples, and behaviour symbolic of the ultimate middle finger salute prove to be the second mouse?  This is where The Second Mouse by Archer Mayor begins.

43 year-old Michelle is found dead in her home. Despite a well-worn life of four marriages alcohol, and recent widowhood, an initial forensic examination reveals neither evidence of foul play nor explanation of her untimely passing.  All roads lead to Michelle’s father-in-law Morgan who recently served her an eviction notice she chose to ignore. He has motive, means, and opportunity but there exists no proof. Or is it simply well-hidden?

Meanwhile, a trio of not terribly bright and equally interesting amateur criminals fly under the radar, moving from thievery to drug deals. Led by mastermind Martin, whose escalating violence keeps them in tow, his increasingly reluctant wife Nancy, and friend Ellis stumble along after him, following orders at least as much out of habit as fear.

Also woven into The Second Mouse is a complicated and confusing story of blackmail and lies within the Medical Examiner’s office.

Archer Mayor provides an easy, quick, and relaxing read that expands in complexity and, as an aside, gives the reader a nice feel for the atmosphere and architecture of Vermont. All the elements required for the making of a great mystery novel are present and accounted for, namely murder, violence, scandal, cover ups, and unexpected turns, yet something is missing.

The concurrent plots in The Second Mouse rarely intersect. When the Noel / Nancy / Ellis triangle is in focus, it is easy to forget this whodunit began with a possible homicide, although all comes full circle in the end.

Peripheral characters abound in this Joe Gunther mystery. Despite hints of romance, sexual tension, and glimpses into the difficult human condition, those with significant roles unfortunately do not lend themselves to much sympathy or cheerleading. Even Joe Gunther is neither prominent nor strong enough to live up to his reputation as a legend among Vermont cops. Such is the price of a team player with a supporting cast.

Is The Second Mouse a bad mystery novel? No, but perhaps an in depth exploration of any of the story lines alone would have made it a more compelling thriller.

The Second Mouse – A Joe Gunther Mystery
Archer Mayor
Mysterious Press 2006
304 pages

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