My first introduction to Paul Doiron’s crime novels came during my tenure at RT Book Reviews with the release of his debut novel, The Poacher’s Son. I never asked my boss if I was given the book because I lived in Maine, where Doiron’s series is set. But I was naturally interested, and I also was not disappointed. As a debut novel, The Poacher’s Son had a really slick feel to it, like the author had written dozens of mysteries, and its premise was fascinating. So of course, I happily accepted its sequel, Trespasser, the following year, and again I was not disappointed. If anything, it seemed to me a better book, more tightly plotted, more atmospheric. By then I was quite fond of Doiron’s recurring character, Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch, and gleefully accepted the latest installment, Bad Little Falls, released in August.
There are certain elements, to me, that make a good mystery novel. First, plotting is key. There has to be a either a decent set of suspects or there needs to be a compelling reason why it doesn’t matter if we know right away whodunit. In Bad Little Falls there is a nice swath of potential criminals, and their stories drive the plot. It’s also important that the plot is fair to the reader—half the fun of reading a good mystery is trying to figure it out before the detective does. So the clues have to be fairly laid out—no hiding important information allowed. I also like mysteries to be tightly plotted, so that clues and suspects fit together neatly, with no wandering off the point. Doiron fulfills these requirements for me.
Second, a good mystery must have, at its center, a compelling detective. As a character, Mike Bowditch is about as compelling as they come. He’s a good guy at heart, but oh is he flawed. His troubled childhood comes back to haunt him constantly, although it also makes him so good at what he does. He is driven and tenacious, with a keen sense of fair play and justice, but also empathetic to the people he encounters in his daily routine. It’s that empathy that eventually gets him into trouble on the job, so we find him, at the beginning of Bad Little Falls, transferred to remote Washington County, Maine, an outpost near the Canadian border. Washington County is one of the poorest in Maine, an area bedeviled by high unemployment and extreme poverty. Bowditch is out of his element here in some ways—he’s lost his long-time girlfriend, and his usual support system is now hours away. As an outsider, he’s suspect as far as the locals are concerned, and that would include his new colleagues—they know his reputation as a bit of a troublemaker, and they prefer a nice, peaceful existence. They don’t need him to come crusading in and upsetting the balance.
Bowditch really can’t help himself, though. He’s congenitally nosy and incapable mentally of just letting things ride. So when a notorious local drug dealer goes missing in a blizzard, his job is to lead the search for him. When he finds him dead, his job should be over. Instead, when the man’s friend is arrested for his murder, Bowditch becomes entangled with the victim’s ex-girlfriend and her offbeat son, and she convinces him that the state police have got the wrong man. He doesn’t need much encouragement to nose around, and he becomes convinced that someone else is responsible for the murder. It becomes pretty clear to the reader that Bowditch is back to his old habits and is, furthermore, not thinking with a clear head as he goes rabbiting off after a variety of suspects, which not only gets him into serious hot water with his supervisors and the state police, but nearly gets him killed in the end.
But it’s this exact behavior that makes Bad Little Falls such a good read—you know he’s doing this stuff he shouldn’t be doing, and you know he’s going to pay for it in some way, but you can’t help but admire his drive to find the truth and hope that he finds it.
Doiron does a really fine job of developing a diverse cast of supporting and secondary characters as well. Each one is carefully limned out and realistic. It’s also fair to say that one of the most important characters in this book (and all of the Bowditch novels) is Maine’s unpredictable, and often unforgiving, weather. Anyone who’s spent a winter here knows the joy of driving on ice-caked roads in white-out conditions, or walking in a stinging snow that’s driving down so hard you become disoriented while the cold is so bitter your lungs feel like they’re on fire. The harsh winter conditions become a metaphor for Bowditch’s troubled character here—he’s disoriented through much of this book, frozen out by the locals, and unable to get a firm footing while he tries to find the truth. And a chase through the woods after a heavy blizzard at the end makes for a compelling conclusion.
Doiron takes a few liberties that I feel I must point out in order to maintain my credibility as a Maine transplant. He futzes with the geography of the state just a bit—if you’re not intimately familiar with the locations in these novels, you won’t notice it, though, and the tinkering allows him to get Mike places faster than he could in real life. It’s not a distraction. Likewise, at the conclusion, he has Mike chasing the villain across a remote frozen pond. That has no snow on it, even though it’s been snowing for days and days prior to the chase. These are nitpicky things, though, that don’t really detract from the overall quality of the book.
If you like a good mystery that’s elegantly crafted and with a forceful main character, you should check out Bad Little Falls. The book will stand on its own—no need to read the first two to understand Mike’s character, although you might want to just because they are that good.
All of the novels mentioned in this review were generously provided by the publisher during my tenure with RT Book Reviews and initially reviewed for that publication.