Maine author Paul Doiron’s tenth novel in his Mike Bowditch mystery series is his best, with more twists, more zany characters and more action than ever before. And Bowditch, who was promoted from game warden to investigator in the Warden Service in the previous book, “Stay Hidden,” takes on the mantle of his new job with confidence. Most of the recklessness he was known for by his superiors and fellow game wardens is tempered. Though he still has a touch of cowboy in him, he carries the badge of high sheriff of the woods with pride — and a commitment to do the right thing.

Cover courtesy of Minotaur Books

Early in “Almost Midnight,” a series of phone calls with echoes from the past propels Bowditch to repeatedly crisscross vast distances in Maine, drawn by apprehension and strong loyalties. Bowditch is first called away from his fishing vacation on Grand Lake Stream in Washington County by a phone call from Aimee Cronk. Aimee, the wife of his good friend, Billy, tells him to get down to the Maine State Prison four hours away where her husband is serving life for murder. Cronk had called to tell her to reach out to Bowditch, as it was “a matter of life and death.” Bowditch heads south without hesitation. At Cronk’s trial, Bowditch was obligated to testify that his friend had lost it when the two of them were ambushed. In a blind rage after the firefight, Cronk “had gone beserker” and had coldly killed one of their attackers with several blasts to the head.

At the prison, Cronk asks Bowditch to secretly investigate Dawn Richie, a correctional officer recently transferred in from a Downeast prison. “You can’t let anybody know… If word gets out, I’m a dead man,” Cronk says. Bowditch asks why. “I can’t tell you,” his friend replies.

“You have to give me a reason,” Bowditch insists.

“How about you do it because you owe me.”

Bowditch refuses, knowing that he can’t professionally oblige Cronk, but too, because he knows that his friend has an overactive imagination.

Later that night, Bowditch gets a call from Game Warden Gary Pulsifer, who tells him he has to get over to a dying mill town near the New Hampshire border as fast as he can. The hybrid wolf dog that Bowditch had rescued from two meth addicts in an earlier book, is at a veterinarian’s on the edge of death. Three years before, after rescuing the hybrid animal, Bowditch had became attached to him, and had illegally released him back into the wild, knowing that he would be euthanized by the state if Bowditch brought him in. Bowditch heads out again to find the vet who has “Shadow,” as fellow wardens had come to call him. When he arrives, the vet tells him that the animal was shot with a crossbow, with such blood loss, he’s headed for massive organ failure and death.

Later still, he gets a call from State Trooper Detective Steve Klesko that he needs to get over to a mid-coast hospital, as Cronk has been stabbed and is in emergency surgery. Bowditch again reverses direction to head east. When he arrives at the hospital, he encounters Klesko who tells him Cronk was stabbed attempting to defend Dawn Richie in an attack by two other inmates. Klesko says Cronk saved the woman’s life. “He’s the hero of the day.”

“Almost Midnight” twists between these two crises like a braid being drawn ever tighter. Who wanted to kill his friend, and who impaled the hybrid wolf with a crossbow arrow? And why? Each story resonates with the other. Each story line reveals deeper truths about Bowditch and what ties him to people and things he loves. The twin mysteries pull him literally in opposite directions, and induce him to reassess choices he has made in life, which have led to him to be defiantly independent and often emotionally aloof. In the entire Bowditch series, this is the first time the young Warden Service officer has attempted to honestly assess the emotional damage that his parents inflicted on him.

Doiron works these two tragedies into a ferment of trouble. Bowditch wants to find the truth, but more critically, wants to rescue both Cronk and the hybrid wolf. The trail into the dark of each mystery is fraught, peopled by zealots and crazies who are among the most intriguing characters Doiron has yet set on the page.

As readers have come to expect, Doiron’s storycraft is razor sharp. The extended saga he is building about a young idealist with zeal to always do what is right – not necessarily in accordance with his superiors’ wishes – is richly compelling. Character arcs, dialogue and scene setting are all finely done, and they add up to a terrific read.

Frank O Smith novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, and was also named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by Shelf Unbound. In addition to writing fiction, he is also a ghostwriter. Reach Smith via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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