From the first sentence of “Red Herring,” you’re instantly caught by a sense of being privy to something secret and pregnant with meaning.

Archer Mayor opens this book, his 21st in the Joe Gunther series, with the line: “Doreen Ferenc slipped her nightgown over her head and let it fall the length of her body and gently settle onto her shoulders.”

Reading on, you realize this is probably not a teaser to seduction. Doreen is middle-aged, of common complaints and pleasures. She lives a quiet domesticated life of predictability; unmarried, she accepts the truth that, although her little house is “tacky prefab,” it is “the house she’d most likely die in.”

With the season’s first snowstorm whirling outside, we see her pad barefoot toward the couch in front of the TV with her nightly bowl of vanilla ice cream — a single scoop — “splashed” liberally with brandy. Restraint and indulgence in one.

She never gets to enjoy it.

Hers is the first of three strange deaths that Joe Gunther investigates. Gunther is a seasoned, old-school Vermont Bureau of Investigation field commander. He is smart and experienced; has seen it all, but never comes jaundiced to a crime scene; he’s always able to freshly assess it as if it’s his first.

The seemingly random deaths come quickly, with no apparent link — and little reason to suspect one. Ferenc’s murder is followed by an apparent suicide by hanging, and an apparent drunk-driver fatality. The odd grouping is what catches Gunther’s attention, his interest piqued precisely because there’s no obvious linkage — except for one tiny, chilling element.

Mayor is a master of poignant, revealing detail and fabulous snapshot characterizations. He notes the melted, spiked ice cream in the bowl beside the first victim, reflective of the ordinariness of her life.

He sums up the third victim’s life provocatively, with brevity. We first see him walking to his beat-up truck after his shift at Taco Bell.

“It was a rusty, spring-shot, oil-leaking heap, and every time he saw it, it reminded him of his overall fate — stuck in the boonies, living with his grandmother, his father in jail and his mother God-knows-where. He was all of nineteen and already felt like an old man. Even the manager of the Taco Bell considered him a loser” Unlike his friends, however, he “had managed to stay sober, avoid drugs, keep out of trouble, and hold a job.”

Gunther knows the kid, and the reek of alcohol in the truck cab where the boy dies disturbs his instincts.

He becomes convinced the deaths are linked. And realizes the trick here lies not in focusing on who the killer is, but solving why these victims were selected.

Mayor is a master of his craft. Gunther and his colleagues are all fascinating, compelling characters.

Plotting and story are wonderfully conceived and executed.

If there is a complaint with “Red Herring,” it’s that the ending is not as taut as the book leads you to expect. But there’s no complaint in the reading.

Pull up a chair with a bowl of ice cream, and be ready for anything. 

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel “Dream Singer” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize.


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