The New York Times
The Second Mouse (Joe Gunther Series #17)by Archer Mayor
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Intriguing plots, complex characters, and a landscape come to life are mainstays of Archer Mayor's New England thrillers. With a gift for vivid writing, he has made "an honorable art form of the regional mystery," according to the New York Times Book Review. Now in a suspenseful new novel, Mayor's popular sleuth Joe Gunther faces one of the most baffling cases of his career.
A legend among Vermont cops, Joe Gunther has solved more local whodunits than a whole squad of detectives. But his latest case takes him and his team off their Brattleboro home turf, forty-two miles west, to chip-on-its-shoulder, blue-collar Bennington.
On the edge of town, Gunther encounters the lifeless body of Michelle Fisher. Her corpse, pale and seemingly at peace, offers him no clues about who she was or how she died. There are no signs of violence, no disorder. Snapshots and postcards show a woman who laughed hard and lived harder. Yet diaries reveal a rootless life marred by depression and drink. Suicide seems a reasonable conclusion, but Gunther suspects foul play. The house is for sale, after all, and Michelle was its only tenant-one who resisted all efforts to have her evicted. The unsavory landlord is a prime suspect, but is safely equipped with an impressively air-tight alibi.
Now to uncover the truth about the fate of this discarded, all but forgotten woman, Gunther must follow a confusing trail of half leads and mounting crimes. He draws near to a violent and careless trio of criminals, whose leader is hell-bent on making the career move of a lifetime-and willing to step on anyone who might get in his way.
The New York Times
Thomas Gaughan – Booklist
“Mayor's elegiac tone and his insights into the human condition make The Second Mouse a fine addition to one of the most consistently satisfying mystery series going.”
Thomas Gaughan – Booklist
“Mayor is a devil of a plotter and … (The Second Mouse)… is one fine trip.”
Marilyn Stasio – The New York Times
Read an Excerpt
The Second Mouse
By Archer Mayor
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
"Watch out for the cat."
Joe Gunther froze by the door, his hand on the knob, as if expecting
the creature to materialize from thin air.
The young Vermont state trooper stationed on the porch looked
apologetic. "I don't know if we're supposed to let it out."
Gunther pushed the door open a couple of inches, watching in vain
for any movement by his feet.
Encouraged, he crossed the threshold quickly and shut himself in,
immediately encircled by the room's strong odor of cat feces,
wafting in the summer warmth.
"I vote for letting it out," he murmured softly.
He was standing in one corner of a cavernous multiwindowed
room-almost the entire ground floor of a converted
nineteenth-century schoolhouse located some five miles south of
Wilmington. Contesting the smell, sunlight poured in through a bank
of open windows, nurturing a solid ranking of potted and hanging
plants. Old but well-loved furniture, none of it expensive and most
of it bulky, did a convincing job of filling the expanse with a
selection of oasislike islands-a grouping around the woodstove,
another in a far corner flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a
third before a blank TV set. The most distant wall was dominated by
an awkwardly linear kitchen-a parade of icebox, range, dishwasher,
sink, and counter space.Gunther imagined any truly inspired cook
here needing running shoes and patience, or a gift for organization.
Giving the place a hint of old Africa-or what he knew of it from the
movies-were several still ceiling fans with brass housings and long,
dark wooden blades.
The pine floor was covered with a hodgepodge of worn, nondescript
rugs, which in turn bore several small gifts from the missing
feline. That detail aside, the entire space looked homey, rambling,
a little threadbare, and quietly welcoming.
The house was also imbued with the silence that only death can visit
on a place-a sense of suspended animation, striking and odd, as when
a stadium full of people simultaneously holds its breath.
This stillness was why Joe was here.
At the far end of the row of windows, a shadow appeared in a narrow
Gunther nodded. "Hey, Doug. Good to see you." Watching where he
placed his feet, he approached his state police counterpart, Doug
Matthews, the detective assigned to this region. Younger by several
years, but a veteran like Joe, Matthews was experienced, low-key,
and easygoing. Unlike many cops, he kept his opinions to himself,
did the job, and maintained a low profile. To Joe, in a state with
only a thousand full-time officers-an oversize family compared with
some places-such self-effacement was highly valued.
Joe stuck his hand out as he drew near. "How've you been?"
"Pretty good," Doug replied, accepting the handshake with a smile,
his eyes remaining watchful. "Better than some. Come on in. I'll
They entered a much smaller room, tacked onto the building later in
life and on the cheap. It didn't have the bearing of its mother
ship-the windows were cramped and few, the plywood floor covered
with thin wall-to-wall carpeting. Low-ceilinged and dim, it was
paneled in fake oak, chipped and cracked.
But the furniture, also battered and old, was of the same ilk as its
brethren, supplying a comforting familiarity. The dresser, the heavy
desk, and the solid four-poster bed were of dark hardwood, and the
dents and scars appearing on them spoke not of neglect but of simple
domestic history, the passage of generations.
This feeling of simmering life was echoed by the postcards and
photographs adorning the walls and horizontal surfaces. Some
inexpensively framed, others merely attached by tape or thumbtack,
these pictures displayed vacation spots or loved ones, sun-drenched
or laughing, and gave to the room, along with its furnishings, a
warmth and intimacy it lacked utterly in its bare bones.
Lying across the broad bed, as if she'd been sitting on its edge in
a moment of contemplation before falling back in repose, was an
attractive dead woman.
Matthews kept to his word about the promised formalities. "Joe
Gunther," he said, "Michelle Fisher."
Joe nodded silently in her direction, and Matthews, knowing the
older man's habits, kept quiet, letting him get his bearings.
Dead bodies don't usually present themselves as they're portrayed in
the movies or on TV. In the older shows, they look like live actors
with their eyes shut; in the modern, forensically sensitive dramas,
it's just the opposite-corpses are covered with enough wounds or
artificial pallor to make Frankenstein swoon.
The truth is more elusive. And more poignant. In his decades as a
police officer, Joe had gazed upon hundreds of bodies-the young, the
old, the frail, and the strong. What he'd discovered, blandly
enough, was that the only trait they shared was stillness. They
displayed all the variety that they had in life, but in none of the
same ways. In silent pantomime of their former selves, instead of
quiet or talkative, gloomy or upbeat, they were now mottled or
ghostly white, bloated or emaciated, transfixed into grimace or
peaceful as if sleeping. Nevertheless, for those willing to watch
and study, the dead, as if trying to slip free of their muted
condition, still seemed capable of a kind of frozen, extraordinarily
subtle form of sign language.
That limited communication worked both ways. Everyone Joe knew,
including himself, began their interviews with the deceased by
simply staring at them searchingly, awaiting a signal. He asked
himself sometimes how many of the dead might have struggled
fruitlessly to be heard in life, only to be scrutinized too late by
total strangers anxious to see or hear even the slightest twitch or
So it was that Joe now watched Michelle Fisher, wondering who she'd
been and what she might be able to tell him.
In fact, she was one of the rare ones who did look merely asleep, if
unnaturally pale. She was dressed in a short, thin robe, untied at
the middle and draped open to reveal her underwear. Her feet weren't
quite touching the floor, and her hands, palms up, lay relaxed by
her sides. There was a suggestive intimacy in the pose-she could
just as easily have been awaiting the attentions of a lover as
yielding to exhaustion at the end of a long day.
She was pretty, barely middle-aged, on the short side, with
shoulder-length blond hair. Not thin, but in no way overweight, and
from the little she was wearing, Joe imagined she was a woman who
paid attention both to her appearance and to what she wanted her
intimate companions to discover. Peeking out from the edges of her
expensive bra and bikini underwear were two delicately rendered
"She live alone?" he asked, not expecting what he then heard.
"Yup," Doug answered him. "She didn't used to, but from what I was
told, her longtime boyfriend died seven months ago, and there's been
Joe continued watching her. So it probably had been exhaustion, and
the underwear a mere talisman of joys past.
"Who's your source?"
"Mom." Doug glanced at his pad. "Adele Redding. Lives in
Massachusetts. Had a ritual of calling her daughter every morning
over coffee, especially since the boyfriend's death. When Michelle
didn't answer this morning, Mom called a nearby friend, who found
her like this and called us."
"Door was unlocked?"
"Yeah. And all but one light out." He pointed to the night table
lamp, still burning palely in the sunlight. "That one. The friend
said the door was never locked."
Joe didn't respond at first, pondering the suggested scenario that
Michelle Fisher had died last night as she was getting ready for
"What's the deal with the cat, then?"
Doug gave him a blank look.
"There's a litter box by the kitchen door, but the droppings are
laid out as if shat on the run. Doesn't seem like normal behavior."
"The friend might know," Doug offered. But there was a slight drop
to his voice, as if Joe's last observation had been taken as a
Gunther pursed his lips, overlooking or ignoring the change for the
moment. "You have cats?" he finally asked.
Gunther nodded, wondering if fright might have caused the anomaly.
He took his eyes off the woman and looked around the room. "What've
you got so far?"
"I haven't been here long," Doug told him cautiously. "There's an AA
pamphlet on the desk in the corner, some recent bank statements that
show she didn't have a hundred bucks."
"You find a lot of empties?"
Matthews shared his own surprise at that. "No. A couple of beer
bottles in the kitchen, but they look old to me. They have dust on
'em and they're dry inside. I wondered about that."
Joe had begun circling the room, looking at the snapshots and
postcards. He saw the same woman, animated, laughing, keeping
company with pets, children, what were probably friends and family,
and, time and again, a stocky man wearing a beard and friendly blue
"That the boyfriend?" he asked.
Doug shrugged. "I guess."
This time Joe acknowledged his colleague's affected coolness. He
faced him squarely. "What's up?"
The other man looked slightly embarrassed. "Don't take this wrong,
but I was wondering why you're here. This could be a natural, like a
bad liver. Or even an overdose."
Gunther couldn't resist laughing softly, mostly at himself. They
were both employees of the state, both cops, but from different
outfits, and Doug's question ran straight to that divide.
Joe was VBI-Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Exclusively a
major-crimes unit, it was made up of the best investigators culled
from every agency in the state. A recent creation of the governor
and the legislature, it had come into being both to give proven
talent a place to go, regardless of departmental origin, and to
provide the citizens with a truly elite team of skilled
Doug was VSP-Vermont State Police. Even more complicated, he was
BCI, which, in this alphabet-happy environment, meant Bureau of
Criminal Investigation. In the recent old days, they had been the
state's major-crimes unit, made up solely of deserving troopers.
Now, while still detectives, they'd been restricted in both duties
and geographical reach, assigned to specific regions. On paper and
on the street, despite the positive spin the politicians had given
this change-and the logic it represented-it was still being seen as
a huge black eye for the VSP.
Ironically and unsurprisingly, most of Joe's VBI-he was, in fact,
its number two man, the field force commander-was made up of ex-BCI
members. Nevertheless, a residual sense of loss and resentment
lingered, if less among old-timers like Doug, who in his heart was
actually grateful for the diminution of responsibility, if not the
loss of prestige. Retirement was looming for him, and he was just as
happy to go home on time every night, free of the drudgery and
bureaucratic scrutiny that accompanied high profile cases.
"I'm sorry, Doug," Joe apologized. "Dumb on my part. Not to worry.
I'm relaxed either way. I knew you were tight on manpower, heard the
call on the radio, and happened to be driving nearby. Consider me
backup. But it's totally up to you, including throwing me out. No
bones from me."
Doug took the statement at face value, as he'd learned he could from
this man. Joe Gunther was a law enforcement legend in Vermont. A
one-time Brattleboro cop, he'd cracked more big cases than any five
other people combined, all without becoming an egomaniac. If
anything, he was the opposite, ducking the limelight, quick to give
credit to others, a major team player.
In fact, the only criticism Doug had ever heard about Gunther was
that he was a bit of a Boy Scout. Not self-righteous in any way, but
not one to kid around or carouse or hang out with other cops
socially. A loner. And a bulldog with a case.
Nice guy, though. Doug therefore hadn't really been bent out of
shape-more just in need of clarification.
"No, no," he assured him. "Don't get me wrong. I was just wondering.
You people don't usually show up until later, is all." He waved a
hand at the messy desk and dresser and offered appeasingly, "Why
don't we just go through all this stuff while we wait for the ME,
and see what we find? Could be there's a smoking gun."
There wasn't. They pawed through every document and belonging they
could find. After the ME came and had the body shipped to Burlington
for autopsy, they expanded their search to the whole house,
including the upstairs, which they found totally empty, as if the
place were actually a movie set where only certain scenes were to be
They found no signs of violence, of disturbance, or of anything
amiss. Just the home of a single woman who'd been found unexpectedly
dead in her bedroom.
And they didn't find the cat. Despite all the open windows, every
screen was tightly in place.
They did manage, however, to expand on Doug's limited biography of
the dead woman. As so often in his career, Joe had been gratified
and impressed by how much there was to learn from a person's
possessions and surroundings. Especially one like this, who turned
out to be quite a pack rat.
Michelle Fisher, born to an alcoholic, unwed mother and a father
she'd never met, in Fall River, Massachusetts, forty-three years
earlier, had once been married to an abusive man, with whom she'd
had two children, a son and a daughter. The first of these had died
of an overdose five years ago. The second had dealt with Mom by
severing all ties and moving to California.
That had merely been Michelle's "productive" marriage-the only one
resulting in offspring. She'd also been married to three other men,
although not to the one who'd predeceased her earlier in the year.
Tax forms, legal documents, medical records, financial statements,
reams of correspondence, and no fewer than three volumes of old, no
longer maintained diaries all told of a life of turmoil,
rootlessness, and long stretches of unemployment, depression, and
They learned of a woman who loved hard and completely, who gave her
heart unhesitatingly and without thought, who was the best friend
you'd ever have and clearly not much of a friend to herself. She
loved kids, animals, men, and beer. She liked the wind in her face,
shouting to be heard above a loud band, and eating with her fingers
at roadside barbecues.
It turned out that the ex-schoolhouse was owned by Newell Morgan,
father of Archie Morgan, the man of the beard and blue eyes, and
Michelle's last companion, who'd died of a heart attack, no doubt
brought on by sharing some of her enthusiasms.
Archie had been the local high school custodian and was not in a
position to own a house like this. It seemed Newell had made a
provisional gift of the place to his son, in exchange for Archie's
functioning as a live-in caretaker who also did carpentry.
Clearly, however, that deal hadn't extended to Michelle. Joe found
an eviction notice, signed by a judge five months earlier, bundled
with a sheaf of increasingly angry letters, informing her that she
had until two weeks from today to vacate the premises.
That notwithstanding, the one thing they hadn't found in all their
poking about was packed bags, or empty cardboard boxes, or any other
indicators that such a move was being contemplated.
A showdown had been brewing.
Three hours after his arrival, Joe settled on the living room
couch-having made some effort to clean up the cat deposits, and
therefore the air-and flipped open his notepad as Doug sat in an
armchair opposite. Compared to some of the settings both men had
worked in, this was unrivaled for serenity and comfort. What
remained to be done in the short term was some follow-up digging
while they awaited the autopsy results. For the ME, in large part,
would dictate who got the case.
In the meantime, both men were treating it as a homicide.
"This is a funny one," Joe began vaguely, referring to the
unattended death, and still sensitive to his unofficial presence.
"They all are a little bit," Doug only half agreed. "I haven't done
one yet that didn't have a few questions we could never answer."
Joe didn't argue the point. "True, but this one will have a bunch of
them if all the ME finds is liver failure."
Matthews pushed out his lips in contemplation. "I could still live
with it. What's bugging you most?"
"How convenient it is. Newell Morgan loses his son and wants the
house back; the girlfriend digs her heels in; the girlfriend dies.
Excerpted from The Second Mouse
by Archer Mayor
Copyright © 2006 by Archer Mayor.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Craig Johnson, Author, Walt Longmire Mysteries, the basis for A&E’s hit drama “Longmire”
Meet the Author
Archer Mayor lives in Newfane, Vermont. He writes full-time and volunteers as a firefighter/EMT. He is also a death investigator for the state's medical examiner and a part-time police officer for the Bellows Falls Police Department. Mayor has lived all over the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and has been variously employed as a scholarly editor, a researcher for TIME-LIFE Books, a political advance man, a theater photographer, a newspaper writer/editor, and a medical illustrator. In addition to his Joe Gunther series, he has written short stories, two books on American history, and many articles. You can learn more about Mayor atwww.archermayor.com
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Vermont Bureau of Investigation Field Force Commander Joe Gunther heard the dispatch as he was driving by so he stopped to see if he could help Vermont State Police Detective Doug Matthews. Though their law enforcement units are rivals, the two senior cops have a respect for one another and welcome the assistance. The victim is Michelle Fisher, whose longtime boyfriend Archie Morgan died seven months ago and had been in a dispute ever since with Archie¿s father Newell over ownership of the former schoolhouse she called home. --- While on the surface it looks like a natural cause death as there is no sign of a struggle, Joe finds some anomalies that disturb him especially the missing cat and Archie obtaining an eviction notice. He decides to visit Newell in upper crust Bennington, but waited to hear from Doug as to what the ME determines, which turns out to be natural causes after years of substance abuse. No one would care if Joe dropped the case as the victim is a nobody who took drugs and alcohol, no one that is except conscientious and ethical Joe who begins an inquiry to find a missing cat who he believes will lead to a killer. --- Though this reviewer is not sure how Joe found the time to investigate in terms of case workload, readers see the dedicated cop at his best as he makes inquiries into the death of a woman who more likely committed suicide than was murdered. The investigation is terrific as the Morgan crowd refuse to cooperate beyond the specificity of the inquiry as they believe Michelle got her just desserts. However, Joe makes the mystery work with his need to follow his hunch that someone has gotten away with murder. --- Harriet Klausner
I just LOVE Stephanie, Morelli, Ranger and Lula!