Vermont Strong

Borderlines by Archer Mayor

Reading Challenge: A book set in your home state

This was another reading challenge category that stumped me for a long time. Books set in Vermont are not impossible to come by, but if you’re not into Chris Bohjalian or nature writing, your options are limited. Howard Frank Mosher is a great choice, but I have to be in the right mood for him, and I haven’t been so far this year (and it’s October). I’ve been saying Jodi Picoult is Nicholas Sparks for literary types for years without ever reading any of her books, and I had the opportunity to find out if I was being fair or not, but after reading the blurbs I just couldn’t bring myself to crack those colorful covers. Gradually, my search narrowed to Vermont’s preeminent mystery writer, Archer Mayor. I’d read Open Season years ago, so it made sense to move on to book two.

Well, first I tried book 22, but the exposition at the beginning drove me nuts. By going back to book 2, I reasoned, I’d be able to avoid that. There’s only so much to expound on if you’re only two books into a series. It was the right choice.

Borderlines is a good mystery. It’s also a good Vermont book. I would love for someone who hasn’t spent a lot of time in Vermont to read it and tell me if they get the same sense of place that I do. Through the eyes of Joe Gunther, his down-to-earth police detective, Archer Mayor’s fictional Northeast Kingdom town of Gannet comes alive. The descriptions in this book are great: crisp and to the point, not a lot of flowery prose or metaphor (I might also appreciate this so much because of the last book I read, the exact opposite). The characters of Gannet are well-drawn and realistic, although by the end I wished we’d gotten to see the members of the Natural Order fleshed out a bit better. The law enforcement, both people and procedures, comes across as grounded, too. There are several taut action set pieces in here and for my money they all work. I read the opening scene while waiting for an overworked barista on Newbury Street to come up with my drink, surrounded by students and their parents on a warm fall day, and in those few pages I was suddenly in the clammy November woods with Joe, the deer, and the unknown hunter. I actually cannot think of another opening scene that did a better or more efficient job establishing atmosphere, mood and theme for a novel.

Joe himself reminds me of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, albeit a low-key and largely less rebellious version. Both men are aging and have a wry self-knowledge that permeates their perspective. Both are determined investigators and both are refreshingly aware of the foibles of masculinity. Joe Gunther is more cautious and only veers off in his own direction towards the end, in one of those nail-biting set pieces, this one taking place in a granite quarry like this one:

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Even knowing Joe would survive the encounter (25 books in the series and counting follow this one) I hardly breathed during the scene.

There were a couple of elements that did fall flat in this book. As I mentioned, the tension between the well-drawn townspeople and the barely sketched Natural Order suffered from the flatness of the latter characters. We were told about sexual abuse in the Natural Order and everybody seemed weirdly unconcerned about it. Joe gets on a conference call with two “experts” that’s absolutely the worst scene in the book: the genial anthropology professor had nothing to offer (her description of why the Natural Order wasn’t all that bad for a cult made no sense) and the forensic psychologist’s mindblowingly wrong characterization of “borderlines,” people with borderline personality disorder (get it? It’s the title!), approached throw-the-book-against-the-wall for me. Of all the fictional tropes that piss me off, the one where an expert stands up in a procedural book, TV show or movie and starts expounding on a DSM diagnosis in a pathologizing “crazy murderer” kind of way makes me particularly angry. This one didn’t amount to much of anything in the end, and this book came out in 1990, two years before Trauma and Recovery, so I have to guess Archer Mayor actually did do some research before throwing it in. It wasn’t totally his fault, it was the state of the science at the time.

I didn’t really read this for the mystery, though. I read it for the Vermontyness. There, the book delivered in spades. From the descriptions to the stoic characters to the references to the non-seasons of Vermont and “flatlanders,” this book was beginning-to-end real Vermont. Real good book, too.

Suggested pairing: I want to send you out for a Catamount amber. It’s indelibly in my brain as a Vermont beer, THE Vermont beer, being one of the few I ever saw my dad drink when I was growing up (my mom referred to beer as “dirty dishwater” at the time, so she abstained). Catamount was one of the first microbreweries in New England, and you can read a bit more about it here. However, it closed in 2000. In good news Vermont is still full of great breweries. If you’re not actually in Vermont you may have trouble finding the famous Heady Topper, the up-and-coming Sip of Sunshine, or the reliable Switchback. I was going to send you for an Otter Creek Copper Ale but I just checked their website and I don’t see it.

Long Trail Ale, folks, or Magic Hat #9. You can find them, and they’re Vermont beers, and you can’t go wrong.

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