Although this is, I believe, Archer Mayor’s 22nd novel, I confess to never having read any of his books prior to this, even though he is a semi-local author (out of Vermont) and has even had book signings here in Greenfield, Mass. I decided, however, to read this book based entirely on the title, Paradise City, which is the “nickname” for Northampton, Mass., and I knew I’d likely be able to relate to the localities in the book. That turned out to be both a good idea for me and not-so-good because I did, indeed recognize many of the sites within the book, including parts of Northampton, Brattleboro, Vermont, Boston, and even a brief description in Greenfield. This was unfortunately a distraction for me as I read (my fault, not his) but nevertheless, I did continue reading and for the most part enjoyed the mystery and characters and plot despite the distractions.
Joe Gunther is the main character, a member of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, which gets invited to assist other local authorities when they are unable or unwilling to deal with crimes within their jurisdictions. In this case, there are major burglaries throughout Vermont that have stymied local police departments and eventually seem connected to a major home burglary in Boston where an elderly woman’s antique jewelry is stolen and she is beaten so badly that she succumbs to her injuries. Gunther begins working with the Boston police because of the suspected connection with the Vermont burglaries, and he and the Boston police try working with the old woman’s niece to piece together some of the possibilities for her being the target. The niece is not happy with their pursuit, however, believing they are minimizing her elderly aunt’s situation and begins her own attempt to uncover facts and follow them.
They all end up in Northampton, Mass., “Paradise City,” where they believe the jewelry is being fenced. She endangers her own life by being too obvious when she’s asking various jewelers and artisans questions, and Gunther and the Northampton Police attempt to rein her in. Gunther has a history that’s alluded to of having lost the love of his life violently (several books back) and is uncomfortable with this woman putting her own life in jeopardy. He wants to convince her to stop and she placates him but continues with her own research and pursuit nevertheless, which ultimately jeopardizes not only her own life but that of Gunther’s irascible partner who himself is just beginning to develop a new approach to life with a wife and child. This all comes to a climax at the end of the novel and though somewhat contrived, it nevertheless “works.”
My only complaint in the ending is that it’s almost too sudden; whereas the bulk of the novel involves well-developed characters and a meandering plot that sometimes is a bit too convoluted but plausible, although also at times a little difficulty to follow, the ending is achieved in just a few pages and the tension does not develop the way the rest of the novel would have led the reader to believe it would. There are a few too many “connect-the-dot” situations and coincidences that the characters’ dialogues reveal, rather than just letting the plot continue to meander slowly toward the end.
Within this novel, too, is the secondary storyline of smuggled immigrants, whom the fencers are using to redesign the stolen jewelry, and that storyline is interesting, albeit a bit of a distraction, too, as Mayor develops one of the immigrant characters a bit more, perhaps, than she needed to be. It was an interesting aside to have her developed but not necessary to the story; a more generalized description of the smugglers and their captives would have sufficed.
I did find most of the characters, especially Joe Gunther, as very believable, as well as the other law enforcement officials and the private investigator in Northampton who was skeptical about dealing with someone on her “turf.” I did wonder as I read the story if some of the artisans and jewelers described were based on real people since the descriptions of Northampton locations were so clear! The interwoven plot made me think, too, that this is probably what “real” crime looks like, with misleading evidence and apparent luck as much as anything working against and/or in favor of the investigators. One word here, one person there. Mayor was quite masterful at developing those kinds of realities.
I guess I would recommend this book based on an entertaining mystery. I might try another of his books that maybe would be less distracting for me; it was too easy to get caught up in, where is that exactly? or, oh, I know that’s Bill’s Restaurant, etc. Next time, I would choose one of his very early ones – though this book did make me realize that although it’s a part of a series, like any good series, it does not really require that I have read any of the earlier ones. Past references are alluded to enough so the reader gets the gist of why someone is the way they are but without distracting details, and that was very helpful. I would be curious to see how a non-local person responds to this book.