Death investigator, former detective and police fiction writer Archer Mayor. (Photo: Margot Mayor)

Archer Mayor is a death investigator with the Vermont Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and a recently retired detective of the Windham County Sheriff’s Department, where he was assigned to the Special Investigations Unit. He is also the author of the Joe Gunther book series, a series of police procedurals set in Vermont and focused on the titular Gunther, a detective at the head of the fictional Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI).

Mayor spoke with Forensic Magazine to discuss his perspective on forensic science in Vermont, what has motivated him throughout his decades-long careers, and how he avoids “the CSI effect,” ensuring accurate descriptions of forensic techniques and investigative procedures in all of his 28 books. He credits this attention to accuracy for some of the acclaim his books have received, including a spot on The New York Times bestseller list for hardback fiction and a New England Independent Booksellers Association Award for Best Fiction. In his spare time, Mayor also gives annual seminars on forensic and medical science at Colby College in Maine. 

Q: In your time working as a detective and death investigator in Vermont, how have you seen the state of forensic science develop?
A: Working in Vermont puts me on the fringes of some aspects of that and smack in the middle of others. The reason being that certain forensic realities—such as the use of DNA in investigations—are pretty much universal. Even in rural, remote Vermont, we take full advantage of that. In fact, we have one of the better crime labs in northern New England, much to many people’s surprise. That being said, we don’t have the resources that many other locales benefit from, including a latent prints department.

The state of Vermont actually tore down its old forensic lab, replacing it with a state-of-the-art facility. That, along with its mobile crime scene unit, has been an extraordinary asset to us. But, of course, there is the flipside of inhabiting a state with 600,000 inhabitants—there is that one truck only.

Now, we’re not a terribly violent state, and we don’t call on these folks enough to justify anybody liberating the money for a second mobile unit, but that gives you a snapshot into the reality of my world.

Q: What are some of the ways that you have applied your knowledge and experience with forensic science and investigations into the books you’ve written?
A: These novels are all police procedurals, they’re all research-based and proofread by professionals in the field as well as myself. And by professionals, I mean legal and scientific folks whose education is superior to mine.

I’ve got five or six of these folks and they cover the gamut in terms of expertise, and the reason I employ them is to keep me accurate. It’s time and money well spent, because there’s nothing that shatters a reader’s fictional daydream more than to be confronted with something that is flagrantly wrong.

I try to avoid those kind of mistakes because I think my readers have come to expect that. While my books are all make-believe, and none of them are built on real cases, nevertheless, the techniques and technologies discussed within their pages will be reliable.

Although I am not a scientist by training, I love to put science in my books because it fascinates me as much as I think it fascinates so many viewers of TV and movies to see science used in active ways. Indeed, some of my most enthusiastic informants and readers are scientists. I remember spending a lot of time at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, consulting many of these guys for a book I was writing, and loving their company as much as they were enjoying mine.

Q: What are the biggest drivers in your careers, both as a writer and as a death investigator?
A: (My) books are not traditional whodunnits. I don’t even read those. I am by nature a closet social anthropologist. I’m not interested in whodunnits. My drive throughout all these books, and indeed in everything I do, is whydunnits.

I walk around with a pager on my belt, and have had up to three pagers at various times in my various careers, and all of these bring me to scenes where people have done something driven by some mental or emotional stimulus. That is what interests me most.

As a death investigator, I’ve completed over 700 cases. And I have to tell you that when I’m sitting on the sofa at 11 o’clock at night, and my wife and I are looking at each other, groggy with sleep, and we go ‘Okay, let’s head for the sack,’ and my pager goes off, she rolls her eyes—and my face lights up.

She says, ‘Oh my god, there goes a night lost to sleeplessness,’ and I say, ‘Oh golly gee, ain’t that great? I get to visit someone else’s chaos.’ I guess it takes personalities like that, and I guess I’m a suitable candidate, because I just can’t seem to get enough of it.

Q: What is typically the focus of the seminars you have taught at Colby College’s Seminars in Forensic Sciences, and what has your experience been there?
A: (The seminars are focused) primarily in death investigations and forensic science as it applies to medical science or pathology. I have, in fact, lobbied them unsuccessfully that they ought to consider changing the name of the seminars to “medical science,” instead of “forensic sciences,” because only rarely nowadays do they call upon handwriting analysis, or ink analysis, or trash bag manufacturing analysis, or things that are equally crucial but not medical in nature.

Let’s say you find a dead body wrapped in a garbage bag. Well, there have been cases cracked because of the analysis of the garbage bag. They can actually trace this back to not just a lot, but to an individual box in the house of the accused. So this is not science fiction—it is here, and available, and a seminar of this nature could open the eyes of the attendees to it.

Having said that, and given that they’ve become increasingly focused on pathology anyhow, it remains fascinating and terribly worthwhile. Since we only meet once a year, a lot happens in a year, so other than the fact that it’s a little bit more specialized than its title implies, I find it extraordinarily worthwhile.

Q: What is the most valuable thing you have learned that you would like to share with other investigators?
A: People skills. That’s the thing that I’ve benefited most from in my peripatetic life. No matter where I’ve lived—and I’ve lived over half the world and spoken a couple of different languages—the common denominator has been: how do you get along with people? How do you get information from them? How do you get them to open up to you, and relax, and be forthcoming, even with things that they may not feel comfortable sharing?

And that is at the heart of all this stuff, because while all the bells and whistles are fun, and the toys are terribly entertaining if you can get your hands on them, it always boils down to that fundamental basic: how do you interact with somebody else? And how do you get them to trust you and open up in a fashion that will benefit your investigation?