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
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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