Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Maine in mudtime; Spring in Virginia (1,3)

Comments on Trespasser by Paul Doiron

Mud. Muck. Mire. Sleet. Ice storms. Rib-rattling cold.  It’s “Spring” in Maine.

  I finished Paul Doiron’s latest and second mystery, Trespasser, and I recall why my husband decided he had had it with his home state.  Gordon swore we’d move South as he picked himself up off our icy driveway after yet another bad fall – months before mudtime or Black fly season­­­ – two winters ago. One of the things that Doiron does best in Trespasser is evoke Maine weather. Indulge me (from Chapt. 4):

Late March. Mud season in Maine. Not yet springtime but no longer winter either ---- a slippery seasonal limbo. Weather even more freakish than usual…..

The only constant is mud. Mud creeping up your boots, splattering your pant legs, finding its way onto clothes you swear you never even wear outdoors. Your fingernails jammed black with it. The impossibility of ever feeling clean. The inside of your truck transformed each day into a pigpen. Mud splashed onto the windshield, then smeared back and forth by the wipers. The wheels gummed up with mire and packed with gravel into the axles. Every car on the road painted the same shit brown.

Wherever you look, a mottled, melting landscape. Snowbanks rotting along the roadsides and meltwater streams the color of urine. Everything that was hidden is now exposed. Beer cans, trash bags. Emptied ashtrays. Fur and feathers from creatures unidentifiable things long dead.

Winter’s aftermath. The dirtiest season.

 In my nostalgia for Maine, I can get carried along by such palpable description alone.  Doiron’s  trainingand experience as a Maine Guide and his position as editor of DownEast magazine informs his breadth of knowledge of the state and its wild places and his keen eyes and ears record its character. He delivers not just weather, but descriptions of the woods, birds, food, language, issues and people of Maine, all things I’m a little lonely for. Other readers may find this just good seasonal and regional backdrop to a suspenseful plot driven by the very young crime-solving Maine game warden, Mike Bowditch.
 Bowditch’s duties begin when he is called to investigate a trespassing complaint. ATV riders have violated and torn up private land, even felling a couple of beautiful trees in a revenge move to keep the trail open.   On top of this Bowditch is called to a collision between a young woman’s car and a deer on an isolated road. When he arrives, neither the deer nor the woman is there.  What might have been a routine call turns niggling and triggers Bowditch’s feeling that this accident is more than a car-hits-deer incident. Not so for the arrogant state trooper who arrives late to the scene where he takes over and dismisses the woman’s disappearance as more likely leaving the scene of the accident to avoid a breath test.

 Bowditch, troubled by gut instinct and premonition, investigates further and discovers where the woman was likely headed. After supper (home-made fish chowder as main course, Indian pudding for dessert – yum, yum)  with  his girlfriend Sarah and visitors Charley and Ora Stevens, Bowditch and Charley leave the women folk  and go to the seaside cottage of a Harvard Business school professor where they discover the body of his research assistant, the young woman who had disappeared. The body, it turns out, has been brutalized in the same manner as that of a murder victim seven years earlier – and there are details it would seem only the murderer and investigators should know. Problem is that a good looking Erland Jefferts has been convicted of the earlier murder and has been serving time for it and he has a good alibi: he was in prison.
Doiron’s dramas draw on events reported in the state’s newspapers  as well as on the social issues that shape Maine’s landscape – like the divisions between summer people and natives. While the first book reflected development issues in the Maine woods, the second gets a little inspiration from the case of Dennis Dechaine, a Maine State Prison inmate convicted for the murder of Sarah Cherry in 1988.  Similarities in the cases include torture, evidence found in a truck, a suspect under the influence (though substances differ), remarks made by the suspect that could be construed as either flip or confessional, a time of death issue and most significantly, a group of supporters who believe in the innocence of the convicted.   That group in Dechaine’s case has continued to keep the intrigue of his case in the for many years. Careful to distance himself, Doiron acknowledges the inspiration, denies that he is making commentary and provides a disclaimer stating that no real counterparts for characters, events, etc.  exist.

 It’s likely there is also no real single counterpart for Warden Bowditch, a multi-dimensional character with a web of complex relationships. One of those dimensions is being somewhat of a jerk, sticking his nose into business where it doesn’t belong, mouthing off, disobeying authority, being stubborn, acting impulsively, being late to or missing domestic obligations, and carrying a chip on his shoulder. Who can blame him? He’s just 25, has been a warden only 2 years and had a father who was a poacher and a criminal sought by the warden’s law enforcement colleagues in Doiron’s first book, The Poacher’s Son. Doiron has given young Bowditch plenty of room for growth.

Some of that growth will be nurtured by Stevens, a retired warden who is established as a substitute father figure in book one,  his boss Kathy Frost, and the Warden Service Chaplain, Deborah Davies.  His relationship with his girlfriend Sarah, with his mother, his dead father and finally with his God are all  challenges he’s working on.  The Tresspasser of the title may seem to refer to the father-son ATV riding team. But Bowditch also acknowledges he needs if not divine at least self-forgiveness for his own spiritual trespasses. The reader easily forgives any flaws in such a young hero so aware of his weaknesses and humble in his strengths.
In real life Bowditch might be long gone from the warden’s service by now. But like other fictional crime solvers who come complete with attitude Bowditch is tolerated for actions that would likely get his real counterpart shown the door or tossed out on his ear. Doiron negotiates the difficulties of having a main character whose primary job duties do not include homicide by having Bowditch acknowledge those boundary problems. The writer employs similar techniques to disarm other would-that-really-happen questions, by having one character or another raise them.

While I loved experiencing Maine’s mud from afar, I admit to a sweet mixture of homesickness, nostalgia and glee that we avoided such mess. Winter was mild in central Virginia this year and spring came shockingly early to me. The fields started to green in late February. Daffodils popped through leaf-strewn roadsides and smiled the first week of March.  By mid March they were all over the place – fields of them. Then it seemed as if the showy procession of   spring might never end: pansies, tulips, forsythia, flowering shrubs I can’t name, crabs, cherries, magnolias and so many dogwoods that Charlottesville holds a festival in their honor.    Now the Crape myrtles are in bloom.  
I have come to tell folks down here that Maine has no spring. Gordon likes to joke that there are only two seasons in Maine: “tough sledding and the Fourth of July.” I say that’s not true. What Maine lacks in spring, it makes up for in autumn – my favorite Maine season and one that perhaps Doiron will likely devote equally full descriptions to in some future book. After all, fall is hunting season in Maine, a busy time for game wardens, and a great opportunity to discover bodies in the Maine woods.