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Book review: Tag Man by Archer Mayor

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Out of the gate, Archer Mayor’s 22nd volume in his Joe Gunther series is unusual. In most of the Newfane author’s Vermont-based police procedurals, a dead body turns up pretty quickly. So does the reader’s racheting anxiety and page-turning curiosity about whodunit. In Tag Man, we’re dropped into the routine of a mysterious man who breaks into the homes of well-to-do folks around Brattleboro — often outwitting sophisticated security systems. He silently snoops around, helps himself to a snack from the fridge, maybe takes something of no marketable value and leaves his calling card on the bedside table of the sleeping residents: a Post-it note with the word “Tag!” He is neither a killer nor a conventional thief.

Meanwhile, we’re reminded that Joe’s girlfriend was assassinated in the last book, and find that he’s depressed, on a leave of absence and in therapy. Also, detectives and series staples Sammie Martens and Willy Kunkle have had, improbably, a baby girl — the first thing in acerbic, assholic Willy’s fictional history to elicit tenderness. Fatherhood turns out to be a subtext throughout the book, and a role that brings Willy to a new level of understanding human behavior.

Tag Man’s uncharacteristically laconic setup is disturbing in its own way: You wonder when the other shoe — any shoe — is going to drop. Mayor obliges soon enough. The reader learns the ID of the tag man before the story’s other characters do: He’s Dan Kravitz, a restaurant worker and, as it happens, a respected confidential informant of Willy’s. In a hidden basement room of a house he’s broken into, Dan finds something creeepeee: scrapbooks of an apparent serial killer’s conquests. Think gruesome photographs and hanks of women’s hair.

Things heat up from here: Plot developments include a death, at the hands of Dan himself; Dan’s dangerous quest to expose the secret murderer without exposing his own nocturnal hobby; and the parallel investigations of local law enforcement. They’re on the trail of the tag man, the new homicide in Brattleboro and a sketchy nouveau-riche jerk named Lloyd Jordan, whom they suspect of, well, all kinds of things. A tangled web, indeed. Naturally, Joe Gunther can’t help but shake off his doldrums and join the case. It could hardly be a Joe Gunther book without him.

Over the years, Mayor has allowed his cast of characters to age and evolve like the rest of us, their relationships and jobs to shift. Gunther began the series as top cop of the Brattleboro PD in a relationship with an ambitious attorney, Gail Zigman (who is Vermont’s governor by the time Tag Man rolls around). Some half dozen books back, Gunther was pegged to head the state’s (fictional) new Vermont Bureau of Investigation, an outfit whose purpose is essentially to assist smaller agencies in solving serious crimes, and which was immediately resented by all said agencies. [With him into the prestigious but underfunded VBI Gunther took his longtime sidekicks, Martens, Kunkle and fellow detective Lester Spinney.]

Over time and several books, Joe and Gail’s relationship slowly, albeit respectfully, unraveled; Joe eventually met and cautiously fell in love with Lyn Silva, an attractive bar owner with a heart of gold, a troubled past and a grown daughter. In the last installment, Lyn took a sniper’s bullet that was meant for Gail. Mayor presumably has his reasons for depriving his protagonist of a love life, but longtime readers who’ve grown fond of the kindly, aging detective may find cold comfort in the salve he offers for Joe’s sorrow: getting him back to work.

Which brings us to Tag Man. Mayor’s ability to flesh out characters fully is one of his strengths, so series fans will settle in comfortably with the regulars while learning enough about Dan Kravitz to sympathize with him. In fact, he’s one of the most intriguing characters Mayor has invented in some time — private, neurotically neat, obsessive compulsive, paranoid and highly intelligent. The author doesn’t explain how Dan acquired his skills as a consummate hacker and cat burglar, or what exactly has made him spend his life moving elusively from one secret lair to another.

Mayor does show us single-parent Dan’s humanizing devotion to his teenage daughter, Sally — the one thing that makes him vulnerable. It also makes him crazy enough to take her out of school and along with him in the search for the alleged serial killer, Paul Hauser — who, in an unfortunate twist of events, has learned his pursuer’s identity and is pursuing Dan in return. More unluckily for Dan and Sally, so is Lloyd Jordan. That’s because Dan has stolen a piece of paper from Lloyd’s house that would, if exposed … well, it would not be right to reveal more here.

Suffice it to say that in Tag Man, not all the chasers are cops, and the interconnected layers of pursuit keep things lively. But it also must be said that Mayor plays a little loosey-goosey with his storytelling. There are a few too many unexplained events and convenient clues that move things along. While Mayor burrows deep into Dan Kravitz’s psyche, the facts of his bio remain encrypted. We don’t really know, for example, why Dan is familiar with such places as the former racetrack in Pownal, where the story’s action comes to a violent apex. Surprise is a mystery writer’s tool, to be sure, but too many contrivances can leave a reader feeling a bit cheated.

All that said, Mayor excels in pacing the narrative to retain a sense of forward momentum while also pausing to develop not just character but a sense of place. For Vermont readers, even those unfamiliar with the Brattleboro area, these passages are particularly resonant. Mayor’s interest in history, geography and the socioeconomic forces that shape towns — and their denizens — gives his series its signature backstory and, yes, far more rich detail than would fit on a Post-it note.

"Tag Man" by Archer Mayor, Minotaur Books, 290 pages. $25.99.

From Tag Man

Dan stepped inside his inner sanctum — neat, white, windowless, as organized and clean as a museum exhibition — and closed the door behind him, pressing against it with his shoulder blades. He was hot, flushed, his heart hammering, his hands trembling — having a full-blown panic attack.

From the moment of Sally’s abduction, now four hours ago, he’d been struggling to stay centered.

But the weight of his doubts about his own sanity was pulling him down. He felt trapped halfway up an endless set of stairs, saddled with a rock-filled backpack that only grew heavier as he ascended.

“Sally, Sally, Sally,” he whispered, as he had been compulsively for hours, using her name as a guiding light. He was down to his own basic elements now, of repetition, of orderliness, of trying to exert control over anarchy. As he’d driven a truck that he’d stolen near Pownal, after fleeing the racetrack, he’d steered solely with his left hand, using his right to arrange and rearrange the maps and pens and general trash that he’d found scattered across the seat beside him — almost hitting the ditch several times in the process.

All the while repeating his daughter’s name.

He blinked several times. Here in his room at least, everything was as he’d left it — every object touched by him, placed by him, brought here by him. Functionality was addressed, the role of each item clear and defined, the very pattern in which they were displayed refined through constant trial.

There could be no perfection in Dan’s life — no real hope of release from the tensions of his world. But this room, at least, was better than almost anywhere else.

And if there was any hope for Sally, this was where he might achieve it.

That very notion cleared his mind slightly. He stopped mumbling her name, took a deep breath, and shook out his hands — like a pianist preparing to play.

He’d been stricken by what had occurred at the racetrack, but not solely because of Sally. Seeing Hauser and Jordan in the same place at the same time had come as a complete surprise. All his thoughts had been given to the former, whom he’d seen lurking, after all, outside the American Legion in Bellows Falls. The logic had fit: Dan had stumbled over the man’s murder album, and in so doing had disturbed a hornet’s nest.

But Lloyd Jordan?

Dan crossed his immaculate room, sat in his wheeled office chair, and rolled over to his filing cabinet, where he’d placed the documents that he’d stolen from Jordan’s office but only glanced at cursorily.

Part of him felt like an idiot, that he’d never fully addressed the code protecting the content of that material. But ironically, it wasn’t his habit to pry unnecessarily.

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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