St. Albans Fire, By Archer Mayor, Mysterious Press, 310 pp, $24.95
Bobby Cutts, a sweet but simple farm boy just dumped by his more worldly girlfriend, wanders into his family barn's hayloft one night and finds it ablaze. Fuel explodes, smashing his hand and breaking several teeth, and he scrambles for his life onto the ladder down, only to see a pit of fire incinerating the cows below. Archer Mayor tells the rest:
''A broiling wind built up as it passed by the dying boy, the trapdoor directly above him now transformed into a chimney flue. Bobby Cutts clung to his ladder as to the mast of a sinking ship, weeping openly, the fire overhead filling the square opening with the blinding, bloodred heat of a falling sun. . . .
''His hair smoking, all feeling gone from his burning body, he gazed between his feet into the twisting shroud of noise and flames and fog of char, no longer aware of the contorting bodies of the dying beasts slamming into his ladder, splintering it apart, and uncaring as he finally toppled into their midst, vanishing beneath a flurry of hooves."
The haunting beginning of ''St. Albans Fire" -- the ghastly death, the pathetic victim, in agony emotionally and physically in his final moments -- sticks to your guts. Now counting more than a dozen books, Mayor's series about Vermont detective Joe Gunther should be as stale as leftover Christmas fruitcake. This latest entry instead shows a writer at the top of his game.
An arsonist is torching barns in the Green Mountain State, including the one that becomes Bobby's crematorium. Gunther bird-dogs his quarry from pastoral Vermont to the alien landscape of Newark, N.J., juggling the investigation with attempts to mend his fraying relationship with his girlfriend.
The oil-and-vinegar mix of urban and rural becomes a thematic riptide, as Gunther witnesses the brutal difficulties of farming and the resulting pressure to sell out to city-slicker developers. Mayor teases out the contrast in sharply written details, like the description of an out-of-state lobbyist in Vermont's capitol. (''His hair was blow-dried, perfectly coiffed, and had probably cost the price of the small puppy it resembled.")
He doesn't pound you with a polemic about the passing of family farms, a generations-old trend that, nostalgists notwithstanding, defies simplistic answers. In the end, human greed and desperation, not macroeconomics, kill Bobby. Yet Mayor's admiration for farmers summons his considerable talents as a writer. After cataloging the reasons no sane person would work the land, Bobby's mother explains why people do:
''This is how we all started out -- when we left the caves and started working the land. We created the world like it is. Everything else followed from what we started. They try to tear it down and screw it up, and they treat us like dirt in the process -- paying a hundred thousand dollars for a stupid car and demanding that bread and milk stay the same price they have been for decades. But we're still here, 'cause in the end, even with their chemicals and fancy seeds, messing with Mother Nature and maybe poisoning the soil, they still need us to make it grow."
Meanwhile, murder mystery fans can rest assured that eloquence doesn't diminish body count. By the time Mayor's through, the corpses pile high enough to make Hamlet look like Sesame Street.