Archer Mayor Explores Brattleboro: Vermont's Hotbed Of Fictional Crime Archer Mayor exposes the seedy underbelly of bucolic Brattleboro in his Joe Gunther detective novels. But it's a challenge to bring out the dark side; Brattleboro, and Vermont in general, the author says, are "inordinately pleasant" places.
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Brattleboro: Vermont's Hotbed Of Fictional Crime

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Brattleboro: Vermont's Hotbed Of Fictional Crime

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

For the past few years MORNING EDITION has gone noir in August, profiling crime novelists and the places they write about. Our series Crime in the City resumes this morning in an unlikely locale: Brattleboro, Vermont. It's one of America's best small arts towns, highlighted with white church steeples.

NPR's Neda Ulaby went there to talk to mystery writer Archer Mayor who, as it turns out, is an unlikely character as well.

NEDA ULABY: Archer Mayor and I are tooling around downtown Brattleboro in his pickup truck. And he's telling stories about his jobs working as a death examiner for the state's medical office and investigating child sex crimes for the local sheriff's department. He has also been filling me in about his super-classy, New England blue-blood family.

Your background seems pretty atypical for a cop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARCHER MAYOR (Crime Novelist): Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYOR: Yeah, I don't think I've met too many people like me.

ULABY: Archer Mayor's uncle ran the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His aunt was a famous sculptress. Another relative helped start the Woods Hole Oceanic Institute in Massachusetts. His big sister married Senator Fulbright. That's the kind of family we're talking about.

Mr. MAYOR: My paternal side of my family comes from the old New England lunatic fringe. They're filled with scientists and poets and writers and painters and musicians.

ULABY: Archer Mayor's written almost 25 mysteries about Vermont Police Detective Joe Gunther. He never physically describes him, but fans tend to think he looks a lot like Archer Mayor. Lean, rangy, crinkly-eyed; kind of an older version of Alan Alda's character from "MASH," Hawkeye. For his creator, Joe Gunther is like a best friend.

Mr. MAYOR: He's probably the most decent man one could conceive. Not only is he avuncular and thoughtful and supportive and caring, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

ULABY: He's also imperfect. Joe Gunther is unable to maintain a relationship -though he's friends with all his exes. And he works well with oddballs and misfits. Mayor says this detective fits in a town both working-class and a little airy-fairy, with a strong hippie and weekender contingent. Here's a reading from his book "The Surrogate Thief."

Mr. MAYOR: (Reading) Ask anyone in the country about Vermont, and you are almost sure to be given some impression, however inaccurate; from the Green Mountain Boys to maple syrup, skiing, fall foliage and cows, not to mention civil unions and some surprisingly high-profile, plain-speaking politicians. Vermont tends to stick in people's minds, if not always benignly. It is a place with a resonance beyond its modest statistics, and for Joe, a world in itself.

ULABY: "The Surrogate Thief" is actually about an old murder resurfacing amidst the blood sport of state politics. His mysteries delve into Canadian smuggling rings, pedophilia, extreme environmental activism and - because this is Vermont - shenanigans at ski resorts.

They're some of the most popular books in Brattleboro, according to the director of the local library, Jerry Carbone.

Mr. JERRY CARBONE (Librarian): One fifth of all of all of our circulation in the top 100 are his.

ULABY: Archer Mayor's definitely a local celebrity. People yell at him for autographs while we're walking down the street.

Unidentified Woman: Can I have your autograph?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: One of the problems with setting mysteries in this quaint, red brick Victorian town is that it's actually so nice here, Mayor says.

Mr. MAYOR: Brattleboro and Vermont in general is such an inordinately pleasant place. I'll take you to a bad part of town and you will be astonished at how pleasant it looks.

ULABY: We rattle past an old parlor organ factory, a row of somber slate buildings, and some mildly dilapidated rooming houses. Mayor calls one of them the Misery Hilton. It appeared in his book "Gatekeeper," about a surge in Vermont's heroin traffic. Then, an advance up a hill into a crumbling old cemetery.

Mr. MAYOR: I'll give you a bird's eye view of what the dead can see if only they could.

ULABY: These leafy green grounds were the site of a secret midnight meeting that went terribly wrong.

Mr. MAYOR: But in fact in real police work there have also been encounters and observances done here. People do illicit things in graveyards, for obvious reasons. They're off the beaten path. A lot of people find them creepy and therefore don't visit them much. So if you want to do an illicit transaction, of one nature or another, you might well do it at a cemetery.

ULABY: This one has Gothic atmosphere to burn.

Mr. MAYOR: It has a spectacular view of a mountain right across the Connecticut River from Brattleboro. And it is a sylvan heaven and is just gorgeous.

ULABY: Archer Mayor bumps us back down to town to one of Brattleboro's meanest streets.

Mr. MAYOR: So this is Arch Street, which is really not a street at all but a crumbling mess of debris and compacted soil alongside and parallel to a curve of the railroad that runs through the backside of Brattleboro.

ULABY: There's broken windows, graffiti. Maybe even a crumpled up Ben & Jerry's ice cream wrapper on the ground. This is Vermont-style gritty. And there was an Archer Mayor murder here, a homeless man found on the train tracks.

Mr. MAYOR: It looks perhaps like a suicide because he's rested his head on the tracks.

ULABY: That's from the mystery book "Occam's Razor."

(Soundbite of a train whistle)

ULABY: But the passing train also obliterated the man's hands and, conveniently, his fingerprints.

Mr. MAYOR: And so for our well-attuned and observant Joe Gunther, he thinks to himself: No when you commit suicide, you don't put your hands - funny enough, you're more protective of your hands.

ULABY: Stories like that one are never, ever drawn from real police work, Mayor says. He draws a clear ethical boundary between his writing and his jobs in law enforcement. At the police station, when he introduces me to his colleague Detective Lieutenant Mike Carrier, I asked what he thought of Mayor's books.

Lieutenant MIKE CARRIER (Detective, Brattleboro Police Department): Actually, I don't read his books. I mean I'll wait for the movies. And, as you can see, he doesn't have any movies out. So it's going to be a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYOR: I know. I know. That kills me.

ULABY: Are you curious?

Lt. CARRIER: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAYOR: That's the secret of our success as a team.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: It's apparently not unusual for cops to avoid mystery novels. Archer Mayor actually does not read them either.

Mr. MAYOR: Murder is just something that we do to each other all the time. Every day. There's going to be a headline somewhere with a murder in it. And unfortunately it's a way that we human beings express ourselves, however poorly, I might add.

ULABY: Even in beautiful Vermont, Archer Mayor finds shadows among the lush low mountains and pretty little towns, and his detective, Joe Gunther finds a way to beat them back.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Explore Brattleboro for yourself with photographs and readings that are at NPR.org.

Our series Crime in the City continues tomorrow with a man who's been called the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.

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