The Poacher's Son, Paul Doiron, Minotaur, $24.99.
"Nature will forgive humankind almost anything, and what it won't forgive I hope never to witness."
This is a terrific first novel. Though it will easily remind any dedicated reader of contemporary mysteries of both William Kent Krueger and C.J. Box, that's a compliment. The Maine setting is a stand out, as is the main character, game warden Mike Bowditch. Bowditch is on the young side—just starting his warden career—when he gets a call from his reprobate father, Jack, an infamous local poacher and bar brawler with whom he has only intermittent contact. Unfortunately the call comes when his father appears to be the prime suspect in the murder of a police officer.
Mike, thinking back over his father's life and his relationship with him, is sure his father is innocent. His mother—long divorced from Jack—agrees with him. While they both agree that Jack is a mean drunk and no doubt a poacher, they can't believe he could shoot two men in cold blood, as seems to have happened.
Doiron effectively uses Mike's warden duties to set up the plot—there's a bear who is practically a character, and who any reader might care about as much as any human one. As Mike recalls his first time out poaching with his dad, the awful traps his father uses and the deaths of the various animals his father catches are as horrific as any of the human deaths recounted in the book, and they also serve to ground the book deeply in the Maine backwoods. It's also a way of slowly establishing both the character of Mike and of his father.
Mike has taken the lawman's route—he likes order and rules, while his father seems to be a law unto himself. As the case accelerates and it appears his father has taken a hostage, Mike is called in to hopefully negotiate with his dad, but after things go very wrong Mike goes so far off the grid he's very much in danger of losing his job. This of course is a classic mystery trope—while Mike is a lawman, his inappropriate behavior, and his inappropriate father, place him very much in the outsider position.
The forces trying to draw Mike back to reality include his immediate supervisor, Sergeant Kathy Frost, as well as a retired warden Mike remembers from childhood, Charley Stevens. Stevens is very similar to Krueger's character of Henry Meloux, and he serves the same purpose in the narrative as Meloux does in Krueger's books: he adds the voice of practical wisdom that comes with many years. Also at the edge of the narrative is Mike's estranged wife, Sarah. Mike and Sarah are so young that some of their problems, to an older reader, seem like they could easily be resolved, but Mike is obviously not thinking clearly.
As one of the characters points out to Mike, "you are the youngest old fart I've ever made the acquaintance of." This, however, is a theme, and one I feel sure Doiron will utilize in future books. Mike has picked the warden's life because he's never liked the onslaught of civilization—the relentless building and paving and destruction of nature. As he says to Charley in one of their conversations, he wishes he could have seen the woods back when Charley was starting out. Charley, more practical, points out that you can't stop progress, and it's an interesting tension to add to both characters, and one that doesn't hit the reader over the head.
While some of the storytelling methods and tropes are familiar, what's fresh here is the setting, and the way Mike's relationship with his father drives the story and deepens the narrative. The relationship to the animals and the natural world is also very effective and somewhat haunting. Doiron has a very deft hand at story telling and character development—you care about and are at least interested in all of the people in the book, even if you don't like all of them. He also throws a twist in toward the end that's worthy of a much more seasoned veteran. If this book is any indication, this should be the start of a long and successful series.
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