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Onyx reviews: The Marble Mask by Archer Mayor

The marble mask in the title of Archer Mayor's newest mystery does not appear until the closing pages, so its very appearance—which might otherwise have been overlooked—is a flashing testament to its own significance. Perhaps Mayor felt that by the time the sculpture shows up the reader will be happy to see something which is a concrete and reliable clue, since so much obfuscation and misdirection has been handed out to that point.

The book opens with the discovery of a symbolic marble mask, this one belonging to a corpse discovered on an off-course ski slope in Stowe, Vermont. The body has apparently been frozen for a long time and was only recently delivered to its current resting place. It is identified as Jean Deschamps, the patriarch of a prominent crime family from Sherbrooke, Quebec, who disappeared in the 1940's. The Vermont Bureau of Investigations has its inaugural case, with Joe Gunther -- Mayor's series detective—leading the fledgling organization into a baffling and complex investigation of a decades-old crime.

Gunther and the VBI are under close scrutiny as politicians, other law enforcement agencies and the public wait to see if the new organization will fly or fail. Gunther gets to hand-select the other members of his team, picking the elite from other Vermont criminal units, including Willy Kunkle, a curmudgeonly friend from his past who has few other allies in Vermont. Kunkle's detection skills are prodigious, but he has little use for the social niceties that lead to career advance.

Much of the investigation takes place in Sherbrooke, a town where the local police, the Surete and the RCMP jostle for power and the Deschamps organization and the Hell's Angels share the turf in a symbiotic criminal power scheme. Even though the crime is over fifty years old, moldering clues turn up conveniently in old suitcases and carefully preserved mementos. Gunther, along with his Surete counterpart, Gilles Lacombe, begin to suspect that they are being manipulated by someone intent on framing the current head of the Deschamps family. As the cabal begins to unravel, the conspirators become more desperate and witnesses begin to die. Gunther and his colleagues scramble to pull together a story of family honor and dishonor among thieves before there's no one left alive to take the blame.

Mayor's story unravels at a leisurely pace with little urgency until the climax. His renditions of Sherbrooke and Stowe, both present and past, are skillfully drawn. The characters are not so well defined. Gunther's team members are two-dimensional pawns manipulated to fulfill plot necessities. Occasionally they do something to remind the reader of their nature—Kunkle becomes testy with a colleague, Lacombe lapses into French patois—but these characteristics are only skin deep. Gunther, the narrator, is mostly a crime-solving drone who occasionally mentions his unconventional relationship with his girlfriend.

Even though the perpetrators are deliberately misdirecting the police, other plot elements are equally gimmicky. The primary example of this is the preservation of the body of Jean Deschamps: the reasons why his body was kept for over fifty years are never satisfactorily explained, nor are the reasons for his sudden reappearance. The manner in which he is delivered into the year 2000 is also problematic—the body is dropped from an airplane into a remote mountainous snowfield where it could very easily have gone undiscovered for months. That an adventurous off-trail skier discovered it is the sort of coincidence that is not supposed to happen in fiction—only in real life.

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