(Q&A conducted by Wil)
Archer Mayor’s Three Can Keep A Secret is the latest book featuring Vermont inspector Joe Gunther. As BookPople’s biggest Gunther fan and a former Vermont citizen, I sat down to ask Mr. Mayor a few questions.
MysteryPeople: True or false: Joe Gunther is the one character in your books that is your rock. He doesn’t change his basic character despite the changes that happen around him.
Archer Mayor: Essentially, true.
It occurred to me from the start that, for most of us, having a rock-like character in our lives is a good and enviable thing; and yet, so much of our fiction is populated with “flawed” heroes, who are crippled by any number of exotic setbacks — physical, emotional, substance-related, or all three. I opted instead to have a few such people in my series, but to make the central-most character a rock. He would be human. He would make mistakes. He might even inadvertently hurt people. But he would always atone, and his basic decency would always counterbalance whatever damage he might inflict. As a result, I hope that what I’ve created in Joe Gunther is a person that we can admire and respect, as well as root for. In an ever more cynical world, I felt that such a personality might be a worthwhile icon to create and keep.
MP: In Three Can Keep a Secret, as usual in your novels, you paint a vivid picture of Vermont’s beauty, geography, people and her politics. Do you consider yourself a spokesperson, a critic, or a simple reporter for the state of Vermont?
AM: Perhaps more a reporter. My work as a cop, EMT, firefighter, and a medical examiner preclude my simply being a local cheerleader. I’ll leave that to the Chambers of Commerce and the state Tourism Department. I’m comfortable inhabiting the real world (and writing about it), where beauty and grace can easily co-exist with ugliness and misfortune and sometimes change from one to the other (and back) in a heartbeat.
MP: The portrayal of Hurricane Irene and the subsequent flooding in your latest novel rings true. It seems everyone – especially down here in Texas – has a flood story. What’s yours?
AM: I was working as a cop on the day that Irene dropped by, engaged in a search for a young man who had gone missing. To this day, he hasn’t been found, and we have no idea if Irene played a role in his vanishing. That being the case, I therefore spent all the time surrounding the storm scouring the ravaged surrounding environs in this search, and thus became very familiar with its impact – and also getting very wet.
I was called in on another case, in my role as a medical examiner, to help locate the washed-away contents of a local cemetery, but my role as a cop took precedence.
MP: Both Willy Kunkle and Beverly Hillstrom have been long standing colleagues in Joe Gunther’s life. In this book, which character has been the most fun (or the most interesting) to write about: Willy the ever-crotchety investigator who is now a new dad, or Beverly the state medical examiner with her cadavers and her ongoing history with Joe? Yes, I’m honestly forcing you to choose.
AM: Well, Willy remains a reliable force with me. My daughter even tells me that I’m the template for his personality- which I hope is only partially true. Therefore, since you are being forceful, I will opt for Beverly in this narrow instance. She is Joe’s equal in many important ways (intelligent, kind and a dogged worker) and now seems to be willing to add to his happiness as well. And I think that we can all agree that he’s due for a little of that by now. But we also know that relationships are tricky and need constant nurturing. So what has developed between Beverly and Joe will deserve attention from me, and will therefore make them challenging and enjoyable as a couple.
MP: Do you ever feel like you’ve tapped into every bit of crime the setting of Vermont has to offer?
AM: No more than any other chronicler of human misbehavior. Vermont is rural and small and thinly populated, true. But it also contains human variables that are available most everywhere else (if in fewer numbers) from domestic violence to gangs to dopers to sociopaths — as well as altruists, idealists, and kind-hearted community volunteers. I consider myself a social anthropologist. I write less about crime, per se, than about the human condition. As a result, I don’t see myself running out of material any time soon.
MP: Are there any crimes to which Vermont is immune?
AM: Maybe the defoliation of the rain forest. That’s not something we see much locally. On a more serious note, however, while our numbers may appear sometimes ludicrously low, our diversity is there to be exploited. People are people wherever they are.
MP: Are there any new topics of criminal activity that you’re keen to write about?
AM: Not specifically. As I mentioned above, it is less the crime that captures my interest, and more the circumstances that either stimulate it or surround it. Thus, I’ve just finished writing about hoarding as a social artifact (for Proof Positive, due out next Fall) and have tied some criminal activities to it, of course. But I’m hoping that it will be the overall story that will capture the reader’s imagination, and not merely some arcane and glittery piece of criminal over achievement.
Copies of Three Can Keep a Secret are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.