Long before North Woods Law, there was Mike Bowditch.
This is the thirteenth book in the series by Maine resident Paul Doiron about the life and times of Maine State Game Warden Mike Bowditch. Mike has grown and aged along the way, and as we meet him at the beginning of this novel, he’s now a Warden Investigator and back in a relationship with Stacey Stevens.
The two of them were planning a quick getaway when Stacey received a message from one of her college friends, Kendra. Stacey once worked with Kendra on a project along the Maine coast to help return native puffins to the coastal Maine environment. Kendra is worrying that the project director, Maeve McLeary is acting strange and might be losing her mind.
Mike and Stacey paddle out to Baker Island, where the Maine Seabird Initiative resides. Their plan is to meet with Kendra and find out what’s going on, then take some time for themselves camping on another island nearby.
However, when they arrive on Baker Island, they find the situation more complicated than originally thought. McLeary has gone missing, not having been seen or heard from in a couple of days after taking off on the Initiative’s boat. The three researchers on the island are essentially stranded. Kendra confides to Stacey how erratically McLeary was acting as of late. The intern for the summer, Garrett, happens to be black and is being harassed by some local lobsterman.
Mike and Stacey depart for the night and camp on a nearby island. In the middle of the night, they hear gunshots coming from the direction of Baker Island. As soon as first light appears, they kayak back over to the island and find a scene of destruction. Kendra and another intern are dead and Garrett is missing.
The list of who might have wanted to do McLeary and the Initiative harm is a long one, then there are the lobstermen that Mike witnessed harassing Garrett the day before. One of the first responders is someone Mike knows, who also had a history with the people on the island. McLeary finally turns up, but her actions complicate the matter even further.
Hatchet Island is a great mystery, especially given the events in the prologue that I was sure were tied in with what happened but I couldn’t figure it out for a long time. The pace is great, with information coming to the reader almost the same time it comes to Mike (with the exception of the prologue.) He’s not a super-human here (a complaint I had in the last book), but a very astute game warden who seems to have a nose for trouble. It finds him in more ways than one.
The character of the local sheriff who immediately jumps to the wrong (and racist) conclusion is a great detail that’s a small part of the story. It contrasts how Mike is able to let the evidence tell him what happened, whereas the sheriff wants the evidence to fit his preconceived notion. It’s a problem that many police departments suffer from right now and a reason I don’t trust the justice system.
The backdrop to all of this is Mike also debating where his relationship with Stacey is going. It’s nice to see him defer to her and admit when she knows more about something. He still has the after-effects of the injuries he received in Dead by Dawn and she is a more expert kayaker than he is. They work as partners, with her stepping up when her abilities exceed his and Mike taking charge when the time is right for him. It’s important in their ongoing story for this balance to be evident. I think this is the only part of the story anyone who hasn’t read the previous books will have a problem with. Other than their relationship, I think you can pick up Hatchet Island and read it without having read earlier books in the series.
The mystery kept me turning the page, but it’s Doiron’s ability to capture Maine life that really keeps me coming back. Coming from the area, I can say all of his characters are believable. I find myself looking at maps to figure out where these places are. He’s posted on his Facebook page about these islands and I’m looking forward to checking out the Project Puffin Visitor’s Center the next time I’m in Rockland, Maine. I’ve also encountered people he talks about in the book, especially those with the casual racism that think it’s just “all in fun” and don’t grasp what the big deal is.
Hatchet Island is well-paced as events take place within a period of about 48 hours. More often than not, Mike and Stacey stumble into answers to the mystery accidentally as they follow the clues. Mike is chided more often by his fellow investigators for his “wild imagination” when in reality, he just has a mind open to the possibilities. Everyone else seems to just wants to close the case – Mike wants to make sure they have the right answers. He’s not exactly running against a clock, but he also knows there will be a point where he’s removed from the investigation because it doesn’t involve the Warden Service. This gives it the feel of a thriller, although it seems like the pace is natural to the events, rather than forced.
I read Hatchet Island in just over two days. The mystery is great and drew me in. The characters are believable and complex. I have a feeling there are some things being set in motion for the future novels in this series, and it will be interesting to see where certain things (and characters) go.
Previous book in the series (link): Dead by Dawn by Paul Doiron