The past has a way of claiming you. Often, it’s not truly past, but is still waiting to seize you without warning. That idea is at the heart of Paul Doiron’s new Mike Bowditch mystery, “One Last Lie.” It is not Warden Service investigator Bowditch who gets snatched up, though, but his best friend and mentor Charley Stevens, retired chief pilot for the Service. He soon drags Bowditch into the past with him.

Cover courtesy of Minotaur Books

The book opens with Bowditch in Florida doing a background check on a potential new chief pilot for the Warden Service when he gets a call from Ora Stevens, Charley’s wife. She informs him that Charley disappeared in the middle of the night, leaving her a cryptic note: “I’ll be back as soon as I get a puzzle sorted out.” Worried, Bowditch leaves Florida immediately and flies back to get the details of what happened.

There are few details to be had – except one. Stevens had confronted a man in Machias at a flea market who was attempting to sell an old Warden Service badge. An argument ensued, and Charley stormed off enraged, badge in hand, not bothering to pay for it. The next day the man at the booth opened his front door and was severely beaten, sending him to the hospital. He claims Stevens was his attacker.

The puzzle that drives Stevens also drives the book. It claims Bowditch as well, who is anxious to find his old friend.

Stevens is bent on solving a case from early in his career that still haunts him. An undercover sting operation to break up a poaching ring in the St. John Valley ended badly for Scott Pellerin, the young warden investigator who was working undercover on the case. The affair is deeply personal to Stevens, who was mentoring Pellerin. In running down the leader of the ring, Stevens managed to fire a shot at night from his plane, wounding the man, who fell into the lake and drowned. Passions were hot in the Warden Service, which led to the torching of a small town in the search for Pellerin’s body. The incident tarnished the reputation of nearly everyone involved, none more than Stan Kellam, who was the commander of the operation and also Pellerin’s handler. Kellam’s trajectory to become head of the service got derailed. Pellerin’s body was never found.

Before Bowditch heads out on the hunt, he checks on Stevens’ float plane and finds a letter addressed to him from Stevens.

“My fear is that I made the worst mistake a man can make in his life,” the letter says. “If so, it means there’s someone out there who’d kept quiet all these years, waiting for me to wise up to my foolishness, a man of patience and guile. He’s been expecting me, I fear, and taken precautions… if I’m not back, it’ll mean I’m beyond anyone’s ability to find… I will cover my trail to keep you from following me.”

Bowditch interviews the woman who had been running the booth next to where the badge was found. She happens to recall the number on the shield. He interviews the man who was beaten and learns that he purchased it from a girl at a yard sale in Presque Isle. That girl, as well as her brooding boyfriend, stonewall Bowditch when he comes to question them.

Slowly, Bowditch begins to put the pieces together. He comes to suspect that, rather than flag Bowditch away, Stevens intended to lure him to join the hunt. At one point, Bowditch gets run off the road. Stevens appears as if out of nowhere to aid him. Bowditch explodes at his former mentor, accusing him of putting him in harm’s way without asking his permission.

From that point forward, the puzzle becomes ever more tightly wound – and even more alluring.

Doiron’s decision to promote Bowditch from game warden to warden investigator two books back in the series has allowed the Bowditch storyline to go in new directions, permitting greater flexibility in what the young investigator confronts and deals with.

One complaint: The opening two chapters of “One Last Lie” feel untethered to the main story line, as does the subplot they introduce into the novel. Their main purpose appears to be a setup up for a future book, but the subplot is not seamlessly woven into this story. As a result, it interrupts the tension Doiron has worked to create.

That said, the overall plotting in “One Last Lie” shows Doiron at his best. This is his most compelling mystery so far. It’s a great read that will leave readers wondering what comes next.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound” and was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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