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Onyx reviews: Tucker Peak by Archer Mayor

It all begins with a stolen watch. An influential resident of southern Vermont's Tucker Peak ski community threatens to call the governor if something isn't done about a break-in at his condo. The county Sheriff, aware that this incident is only one of a chain of similar robberies, begrudgingly asks Joe Gunther and his fledgling Vermont Bureau of Investigation to assist.

VBI has an image problem. Most of the state's residents either haven't heard of it or poke fun at it. What makes it attractive to local law enforcement agencies - VBI doesn't take credit for the cases it solves—keeps it from appearing successful.

The aging resort lives in the shadow of its more lucrative partners to the north. Never assured of enough snow any given winter and lacking the luster of Stowe, its success depends on one last, desperate influx of investment capital. Fifteen million dollars' worth.

The Tucker Protection League, activists wary of the proposed changes' environmental impact, picket the site. The rash of burglaries hasn't made the news yet and that's just how the owners want it.

The felony robbery (the watch alone was worth twenty grand) becomes a murder investigation when the prime suspect's girlfriend is found dead and another man is savagely beaten. Gunther and his group are not the only ones looking for their suspect, Marty Gagnon.

Evidence indicates someone is working on the inside at Tucker Peak so Gunther and coworker Sammie Martens go undercover. This gives Archer Mayor a chance to reveal the seedy underbelly of the ski industry, showing lackadaisical employees interested mostly in getting high and getting lucky.

When Gunther encounters a P.I. snooping around Tucker Peak, he wonders how many crimes are under investigation. Philip McNally, the resort's CEO, allows the environmentalists to protest without interference, even when it seems like their offensive is escalating beyond harmless pranks like chaining equipment together or dying the lake used for snow production yellow.

As mysteries go, Tucker Peak lacks a strong driving narrative. There are crimes, yes, even murder, but their resolution seems more academic than emotional. The writing and characterization are compelling, and the insider's view of the ski resort industry intrigues, but the plot seems too artificially constructed to fully engage the reader.

Mayor's strength is in reflecting the local color—Vermont is Mayor territory as much as Louisiana belongs to James Lee Burke—and in portraying existential, occasionally frustrating characters. Chief among these is VBI detective Willie Kunkle, long a friend of Gunther's. One-armed, recalcitrant and tactless, Kunkle's police career would have ended long ago if not for Gunther's active support. His burgeoning relationship with young, vivacious Sammie Martens is awkward and tense. Readers may wonder why Sammie puts up with this difficult partner. He's a hard man to understand, and occasionally a difficult one to like, but still an integral part of VBI.

Gunther himself is an oddity in crime fiction—he's not only smart and responsible, he's stable and politically correct. He stands behind his team members and plays the games necessary to ensure they stay together without harboring resentment. His long-term relationship with environmental lawyer Gail Zigman is unstrained even when they could potentially be on opposite sides of an issue. The numerous unique characters populating Tucker Peak make it worthwhile in spite of its awkward plotting.

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