Vermont's home-grown mystery writer goes nuclear in new book
NEWFANE >> Most whodunits start with a glamorous character (enter Miss Scarlet) finding a rope or revolver in the library, ballroom or conservatory. In Newfane, novelist Archer Mayor's new book "Presumption of Guilt," the mystery instead begins with a grimy workman taking a drill to the shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
"Over the years, how many times did you think tensions at Vermont Yankee might get hot enough to trigger a homicide?" an investigator soon tells a colleague familiar with four decades of environmental protests. "Some guy with a jackhammer was taking apart one of the old warehouse slabs and found a skeletonized hand."
Since releasing his first book in 1988, Mayor has been deemed "Vermont's locavore novelist" for infusing what the Chicago Tribune calls "the best police procedurals being written in America" with real places and public events. Take Northeast Kingdom natives questioning a back-to-the-land church community in 1990's "Borderlines." Or heroin dealing and deaths in Rutland in 2003's "Gatekeeper." Or Tropical Storm Irene flooding the state in 2013's "Three Can Keep a Secret."
Mayor has accrued true-life experience in the past as a detective for the Windham County Sheriff's Department and presently as a death investigator for the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
"Please do make clear that I do not ever bring a real case into the fiction," he repeatedly has told reporters upon publication of his past titles.
But for his 27th and latest book, the author acknowledges he appropriated the idea from, of all people, the nuclear plant's spokesman, Martin Cohn.
"He approached me in the post office and said, 'I got a gig working at Vermont Yankee — have you ever thought about burying a body there?'"
Mayor hadn't. But soon the author was touring the fortress that opened in 1972 and closed in 2014.
"My world should parallel the real world," the author thought. "Let's see what I can do realistically."
A body in the reactor pool? Stepping through round after round of security, Mayor knew that wouldn't float. But a corpse snuck into a concrete mixer and, as a result, the foundation of a nearby warehouse?
"This was a side project," the author soon found himself writing, "a two-man job with little to no supervision. Custom made for a single truck. He reached up, switched the drum's auger from charge to discharge, and began slinging a river of gray slurry off the end of the chute ..."
The 300 pages that follow — no spoilers here — note how the plant has changed southern Vermont.
"Vernon, the plant's tiny host town, was undergoing a bipolar crisis," the author writes in the introduction, set in 1970, "reveling in the millions of dollars being spent in its midst, while downplaying the predictions of the nuclear disaster being forecast by the raggedy protesters who gathered weekly by the front gate."
And how the shifts are part of a statewide metamorphosis.
"The Green Mountain State had changed radically, switching from a 100-year-old, rock-ribbed Republican bastion in 1962 to the thing in flux it was now," the opening pages continue. "This plant they were working on was just another example."
Some things, however, don't change. The arrival of a new Mayor book featuring trademark detective Joe Gunther — "as likable and sensitive a hero as Robert B. Parker's Spenser," Publishers Weekly says — is a fall tradition, with the author set to embark on a speaking tour detailed on his website, archermayor.com, and set to include stops Friday at Manchester's Northshire Bookstore, Oct. 3 at Newfane's Olde and New England Books, Oct. 6 at the Bennington Free Library, Oct. 7, at Wilmington's Bartleby's Books, Oct. 15, at Brattleboro's Mystery on Main, Oct. 21 at Bellows Falls' Village Square Booksellers and Nov. 12, at Brattleboro's Baker's Hallmark.
As for how it all ends — the butler decommissioned it? — the writer can't say. He's also mum about the subject of his next book, tentatively titled "The Exquisite Corpse."
"I try to keep my books relevant and topical to our times," he concludes, "but I love to look at everything outside its normal perimeters. Who knows, maybe I'll do a book on wind turbines."
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