"It’s approximately 12:25. And I swear to the accuracy of all I’m about to say," Archer Mayor says into my tape recorder, but this is no interrogation. All the crimes we’ll be discussing were committed on paper. Tag Man (Minotaur), Mayor’s latest Gunther novel, is about a burglar who steals quiet time in the homes of sleeping or absent victims; a drifter who may be butchering and then photographing young women; and a prep school student caught in her family’s criminal dysfunction.
Mayor, 60, tanned and lanky, sips a Pepsi in a seafood restaurant off Boston’s Copley Square. The creator of the Joe Gunther mystery series is being only partly facetious uttering his oath, since, in addition to writing 22 novels, he’s been a detective for the Windham County sheriff’s department, a death investigator for Vermont’s medical examiner, and had 25 years experience as an EMT and a firefighter. He’s seen evil and mayhem close-up, just like his Brattleboro everyman cop.
“The joke is there are only 12 people in Vermont,” Mayor says, so being a good citizen means pitching in to provide crucial community services, and, in the process, obtaining a view wider, richer, and seamier than the tourist’s take of ski slopes, covered bridges, and maple sugar candy. “I would never put a real case in a book, but I can put the influences, the stressors, into these novels. And use novel-writing to cleanse my anxieties.” Mayor began his series and first dozen or so books as first-person narratives, finding his voice as an author by using Joe’s insights and thoughtfulness. Mayor is married, with children and a new grandson—and he speaks of his fictional policeman with the same esteem he uses when describing his family. He admires Joe Gunther.
Perhaps being the youngest of six children and leading a nomadic childhood sharpened Mayor’s skills as an observer; he grew up in the United States, Canada, and Europe. “My father was a real wanderer, not a military guy, but he moved around from job to job. It was a wonderful life. My mother is Argentinian and my father is American, so I’m cross-cultural from birth.” After earning a degree in U.S. history at Yale, he wrote two books of history, about a Southern oil-and-timber tycoon, William Buchanan, and a Michigan hunting-and-fishing club, before publishing Open Season (Putnam), his debut mystery, in 1988. Mayor sometimes laces his fiction with history: portions of The Marble Mask (Mysterious, 2000) are set during the Italian campaign of WWII.
Joe Gunther is frozen in time, “in imponderable late-middle age. By leaving Joe’s age a little vague and not describing him physically, I am inviting my readers to make of him what they will—a father figure, brother, son.” Mayor sees himself as fashioning a single story made up of book-length chapters. He gives even his faithful readers a sense of surprise by allowing central characters to marry, give birth, and even die.
Mayor gives himself one year to write each novel. Like many in law enforcement, he has to dampen the expectations raised by CSI and other TV police procedurals that murders can be solved in days using high-tech gizmos.
Shortly after this interview, Mayor heads to the Colby College Seminar in Forensic Sciences, for “medical examiners and like-minded people.” Or, as his adult daughter puts it, “Dad’s off to Dead Camp!”