Friday, December 6, 2013
By FRANK O SMITH
Mike Bowditch can't seem to help himself.
"Bad Little Falls." By Paul Doiron. 320 pages.$24.99. Minotaur Books.
Bowditch, a Maine game warden, is the protagonist of "Bad Little Falls." He has a gift for getting himself in trouble with his superiors -- mostly for overstepping his jurisdictional bounds.
At one point in "Bad Little Falls," the third in Paul Doiron's engaging mystery series featuring the young, impulsive warden, Bowditch even wonders "whether I was really cut out for my work."
You've got to wonder -- as you shake your head watching him step ever more dangerously onto metaphorical thin ice.
"Bad Little Falls" opens with the introduction of a strange little boy who keeps cryptic journals, and Bowditch inspecting a frozen zebra under a pine tree. Both intimate trouble. As does the blizzard poised to strike eastern Maine.
Bowditch has been recently transferred here, "exiled to Siberia -- a place known for its epidemic drug abuse, multigenerational unemployment, and a long tradition of violent poaching." The transfer gives Bowditch momentary pause, realizing if one is sent here, "it's pretty clear your career isn't on the rise."
As Bowditch steps from one messy entanglement to another, Roberta Rhine, the stony-faced county sheriff, remarks, "I'm beginning to understand why your superiors transferred you Down East."
The story turns around two frozen men found at night in the middle of the blizzard. One is dead; the other horribly frostbitten. It's becomes quickly apparent that they are local drug dealers. The dead one has a Maori-style tattoo on his face; the other is brother to the beautiful but ill-fated Jamie Sewall, employee-of-the-month at McDonald's in Machias.
Bowditch, lonely and painfully estranged from a former girlfriend, is smitten from the moment he sets eyes on Jamie. She sucks Bowditch deep into the twisted torment of her life and those of a half-dozen other central characters.
Jamie's ex-boyfriend, Randall Cates, is the one who is found dead in the storm. Did his companion, her brother, kill him -- or is it something more? In rapid succession, we're introduced to Doc Larrabee, the aging, local vet who lives reclusively, mourning his dead wife; Kevin Kendrick, a professor at the University of Maine at Machias who is a master woodsman and gets around by dog sled; and Ben and Doris Sprague, whose cabin sits near a dark heath central to the story.
We also learn of "George Magoon," a semi-mythical character who leaves Bowditch warnings, including a dead coyote nailed to his door and a live skunk tossed into his trailer. The historical Magoon was a kind of Robin Hood who haunted the area in the 1880s, when the state changed the law to prohibit "meat hunting" -- an activity crucial to feeding families. Back in the day, game wardens became personas non grata, and often ended up shot to death.
We learn too that "heath," a near-impassible bog, gave rise to the term "heathen," because heaths long ago were favored by outlaws, criminals and lepers.
The mysterious boy who keeps journals lies near the heart of "Bad Little Falls." Partly because he -- Lucas Sewall -- is Jamie's son.
Bowditch is drawn to both Lucas and Jamie, in part because the boy reminds him of himself when he was young, and Jamie reminds him of his single mother, who was devoted -- as much as Jamie is -- to doing right by her child.
"Bad Little Falls" is heavily salted with clues and miscues, so much so that it's risky to say much more about the plot without spoiling the superbly crafted intrigue.
The book will keep you guessing to its perilous end. And though not everything is neatly tied up in a bow, I got a strong sense from hints that Doiron plants that we haven't seen the last of some of these characters. One in particular makes only a brief cameo appearance, but creates telling turbulence at the heart of the heart of Mike Bowditch.
Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, "Dream Singer," was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize.