The Price of Malice: another outstanding entry in Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series

January 14, 2010 at 2:10 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Archer Mayor has done it again: The Price of Malice features the great sense of place (that place being New England in general and Vermont in particular), the intriguing and believable characters, and the solid plotting that typically characterize the novels in this series.

In Brattleboro, Wayne Castine has been found  brutally murdered. His body was discovered in an apartment whose tenant claims complete ignorance of the victim’s identity. From there, things get even stranger. (Pay close attention to Joe Gunther’s interview with this tenant, a woman named Elisabeth Babbitt. It is a great illustration of his masterful technique, paired as always with humanity and compassion.)

Castine is a tough character to care about: a certified low life and suspected child abuser. What’s interesting here is the course the investigation takes, and the investigators themselves. Joe Gunther leads a team from the  (relatively) newly formed Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Besides himself there’s Lester Spinney, a family man, Willy Kunkle, and Sammie Martens. Sammie is actually Samantha, a savvy officer with a very direct approach to crime solving. As for Willy Kunkle, he’s a sour, embittered man with virtually none of the usual social graces. He has a withered arm, the result of a gunshot injury sustained some years ago. With his disability and his foul temperament, he would have been long gone from active duty were it not for the staunch support of his boss. Joe Gunther has consistently fought to keep Willy on his team, believing him to be a first rate officer with exceptional skills.

One of the big surprises of this series has been the linking up of Sammie and Willy.  Sammie is capable of giving her cantankerous partner as good as she gets. It’s a strange basis for a relationship, but in their case, it seems to work.

Meanwhile, Joe has a problem with his new girlfriend Lyn Silva. On her own, Lyn has launched an investigation into the mysterious death some years ago of her brother and father. Both were  Maine lobstermen, so Lyn goes to Maine looking for answers. Heading into dangerous waters, she’s both gutsy and  foolish. And she’s put her lover in an excruciating position: he’s in the midst of a murder inquiry, but he feels compelled to aid Lyn in her mission – and somehow to insure her safety in the process.

This passage describing Joe’s journey from Brattleboro to Maine says a lot about him and the state he serves and loves:

The trip is a soothing, picturesque, graceful, two-and-a-half-hour offering of some of the best that Vermont has to offer, from serpentine rivers to granite-capped mountains. Fields, farms, covered bridges, low-head dams, railroads paralleling rocky streambeds–all of it rendered in a seamless slide show. Joe was a native Vermonter, the older of two sons of a Thetford Hill farmer. The values, traditions, and life lessons of that heritage always played in concert with the scenery to lift his spirits.


Here is the first of a six segment interview of Archer Mayor by Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. (The remaining segments can be accessed at the bookstore’s site.)


  1. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Compliments and novels in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – Alexander McCall Smith Price of Malice – Archer Mayor Second Burial of a Black Prince – Andrew Nugent The Clare Fergusson / Russ Van […]

  2. Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010) « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Alexander McCall Smith, both the No.1 Ladies Detective novels and the Isabel Dalhousie series; Archer Mayor‘s wonderfully intelligent procedurals; Ross MacDonald, whose crafty plotting and eloquently […]

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