Early on in “Massacre Pond,” Maine writer Paul Doiron’s latest novel, Maine game warden Mike Bowditch ruminates on how his superiors think of him as “the human equivalent of a grenade with a pulled pin.”
“Massacre Pond” is the fourth in Doiron’s series featuring Bowditch, and there is an over-abundance of evidence in the first three books to attest to Bowditch’s reckless impulsiveness to justify such a judgment.
But he’s matured. And although he has doubts about how well-suited he is to his job, when “Massacre Pond” opens, he’s newly decided to follow department rules and the direction of his superiors.
But that’s not enough to keep him out of the crosshairs of politically ambitious game service Lt. Mark Rivard.
Rivard steps in to personally oversee the investigation of the senseless slaughter of numerous moose that Mike and his friend Billy Cronk discovered.
The killings all took place on Elizabeth Morse’s gated land, a vast holding of Maine North Woods that she has been cobbling together with the fortune she made selling herbal medicines.
Her goal: to preserve the Maine North Woods by helping to create a new national park.
A large, intelligent, iron-willed woman, Morse is reviled by locals, and has been racking up numerous death threats. But she is also a darling of the national media.
Rivard relegates Bowditch to the far periphery of the investigation.
Though greatly annoyed, Bowditch follows orders, understanding that Rivard not only wants him out of his hair, but also probably hopes he’ll act impetuously, giving Rivard cause to fire him.
Doiron has crafted a compelling tale that draws heavily from actual events, including the drive by some during the last 20 years to create a North Woods national park up and around Baxter State Park.
Although Doiron states in an afterword that Morse is not modeled on entrepreneur and philanthropist Roxanne Quimby – who made her fortune building up and then selling Burt’s Bees, a personal care products company – anyone who has followed the news and has ever met Quimby (something Doiron says he’s never done) will find the political context and some of the personal likenesses hard to miss.
Bowditch is banished from the limelight of the investigation, one that is being closely watched by officials in Augusta and by the national press, and although he has the best of intentions to refrain from inserting himself in the middle of things, that is exactly where he ends up.
Morse takes a liking to his plainspoken, often blunt honesty, and requires that Bowditch be assigned as her liaison with the investigation – much to Rivard’s chagrin.
Greatly deepening the complexity of the main storyline are two tangential stories.
The first is introduced with the appearance of Stacey Stevens, a young Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist and the daughter of Bowditch’s mentor.
Another storyline arises when Bowditch learns that his mother has stage 3 ovarian cancer.
That Stacey is engaged to the son of the owner of the largest mill in the area and that Bowditch is in love with her amplifies the emotional quotient created by his having to reckon with his long estrangement with his mother.
On top of this, he probes his psyche for why he wanted to become a game warden in the first place.
And then, of course, there is the question of who massacred all the moose and why.
There are nefarious, crazy and perverted characters to suspect as well as zealous, sad and unsuspecting suspects.
Some clues are blatant, others hidden in plain sight. That it ends badly for so many is part of the well-crafted tale.
And as for the larger questions of how Mike Bowditch will reconcile his angst over love, his past and his future – that’s the thorniest, most engaging mystery of them all.
Frank O Smith is a writer, ghostwriter and writing coach whose novel “Dream Singer” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. He can be reached at thewritinggroup.com.