In his 11 previous Mike Bowditch ventures, Maine writer Paul Doiron has demonstrated he is a master at crafting compelling mysteries. But with his latest page-turner, “Dead by Dawn” Paul Doiron takes the Bowditch series to a whole new level.

Set at the winter solstice, the book opens with Maine game investigator Bowditch and his wolf-dog Shadow forced off a remote road at night; their car plunges into the frozen Androscoggin River. Bowditch, shocked by the crushingly cold water, struggles to get out of his seatbelt. He manages to slip loose, but loses his weapon in the process. Instead of retrieving it, he focuses on releasing the snarling Shadow to keep him from drowning in his crate. Shadow finally blasts past Bowditch, inadvertently ripping the man’s hand with his claws as he tries to reach the surface. Bowditch follows, only to find himself adrift beneath the river ice.

The book takes place mostly on a single day. When the days starts, the reader sees Bowditch hauling Shadow to the distant veterinarian who saved the dog’s life after he was shot with a crossbow and is still monitoring the dog’s recovery. As he heads home, Bowditch’s supervisor calls to tell him to look into a four-year-old case involving the drowning of a retired professor who apparently fell out of his boat while duck hunting. The professor’s eccentric daughter-in-law, Mariette Chamberlain, has long believed he was murdered.

Doiron deftly deploys alternating chapters, pivoting between what transpires before the plunge into the river, and the violence that comes after. Pre-plunge, Bowditch is following up on a letter from Chamberlain, who wrote that despite the investigation into the drowning, the professor’s ”demise was insufficiently explained by members of your service about whose commitment, competence, and professionalism I continue to have doubts.” She refers to Bowditch, who was not involved in the investigation, as “my last remaining hope.”

Chamberlain prompts him to dig deeper, urging him to focus on Bruce Jewett, who she declares “was my father-in-law’s lover” – and killer. Jewett is, she states, a “paranoid survivalist.” But Bibi – Mariette’s daughter and the professor’s granddaughter – advises Bowditch to steer clear, saying her mother’s charges have no merit.

After the plunge, Bowditch calculates that, in wet clothes and without matches, he has 10 minutes before hypothermia takes him. As he freezes in the woods and a snow storm advances, he struggles to figure out how to start a fire. Eventually, he crushes the Lithium battery in his ruined cellphone and manages to spark a flame. Bowditch strips naked so he can dry his clothes. Meanwhile, Shadow reappears and hesitantly joins him in front of the fire.

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Before the plunge, Bowditch visits a number of people – mostly odd and threatening characters – who live in the woods around the going-to-ruin community of Stratford. Jewett lives in a decrepit house some way off the road; when they meet, Jewett sports a holstered Glock. “His boxer’s face had the pugnaciousness of a fighter climbing into the ring,” Doiron writes.

After testy introductions, they move inside. While Jewett is elsewhere in the house, Bowditch encounters “an ancient woman” who begs Bowditch to help her, saying that she’s being held prisoner and is being poisoned. Jewett appears, enraged at his mother for leaving her room. “If you leave this room while I’m putting her away,” Jewett warns Bowditch, “I swear to Christ I’ll shoot you in the face.”

In another chapter, as Bowditch waits for his clothes to dry, Shadow hears something and bolts just before a gunshot slams into the fire. Scrambling into the dark with his clothes in hand, Bowditch dresses. Another shot rips the night. His only defense is a razor-sharp switchblade, a combat weapon that has seen duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fleeing through falling snow, Bowditch realizes he faces grave danger: “When you’re a prey animal, you must devote your entire being to outwitting your pursuers.”

So it goes, back and forth, one moment squeezing the other, ratcheting up the tension.

In each of his succeeding books, Doiron has sharpened his narrative edge. “Dead by Dawn” is unequivocally his best yet. Its keen edge is as sharp as Bowditch’s switch-blade – and his wits and will to survive. Doiron takes the threat of the hunt right to the bloody, horrific edge. Then … Bowditch gambles everything.

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


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