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Saturday, February 03, 2007

St. Alban's Fire

Archer Mayor’s well-crafted series of police procedurals has a highly deserved reputation for strong and careful plotting. As a Vermonter, Mayor writes in a style that convincingly evokes the state of Vermont — as much so as Lawrence Block evokes New York. It’s worth reading both authors for a strong sense of place.

Much of St. Alban’s Fire surprises the long-time reader of Mayor’s work by taking place in Newark, New Jersey (“down south,” as one of the characters says). This shift in locale was of special interest to me, since that’s the area where I grew up, living for ten years in Cedar Grove and attending Newark Academy for seven of those years. Anyway, both the Vermont scenes and the New Jersey scenes of St. Alban’s Fire introduce us to well-drawn characters and place us successfully in the world(s) around them. The aforementioned long-time reader will also enjoy the continuing development of the series characters.

And now for the zinger that really caught my attention for personal reasons. Two Vermont cops are on their trip to New Jersey to check out an arsonist who had popped up to Vermont to burn down some barns (and inadvertently killed a boy in the process). Along with their Newark contacts they pick up an informant, head up Bloomfield avenue through Glen Ridge and Montclair to Verona, and turn right on Fairview Avenue. Crossing seamlessly into Cedar Grove, they enter into the campus of the abandoned Overbrook Hospital (not to be confused with Overlook Hospital, though it often is):



Overbrook was finally replaced two months ago by the “state-of-the-art Essex County Hospital Center,” but I grew up on the grounds of the original incarnation of this huge county mental hospital, where my father was first Assistant Director and then Director for many years. Mayor correctly describes Overbrook in some detail, especially the features that made it into a small city in its own right, such as having its own power plant and fire department. And then the car with the police and the informant continues down Fairview Avenue almost another mile, to the opposite end of the huge hospital campus, and turns left onto a semicircular road on which are seven so-called cottages, homes for some of the doctors. They enter one of the ones in the middle... Could it be the very house where I lived for three years as a child? The description certainly makes it sound that way. You think it’s a coincidence, but it’s not...

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