marks the return of Bryan Gruley, and not a moment too soon. I was a big fan of his Starvation Lake trilogy, but the last book in that series, The Skeleton Box, appeared in 2012, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next book ever since. It turns out, though, that the wait was well worth it. Bleak Harbor is a fast-paced, taut thriller that grabs the reader from the opening lines and refuses to let go until the final scenes have played out in the wake of a great climax.
At the center of the book is a troubled family living in Bleak Harbor, Michigan, a small town where the highlight of the summer tourist season is the annual Dragonfly Festival. Carey Peters, the wife and mother, is descended from the town’s founder. Her mother, Serenity Bleak, lives in a huge home overlooking the town, isolated from the rest of the residents, both geographically and economically. The Bleaks made a huge fortune from their various enterprises in the town, but the rest of the citizens have not done nearly as well, and many of them are experiencing hard times as several of the Bleaks’ businesses have closed, leaving their former employees high and dry. Carey is employed by a firm in Chicago and commutes back and forth to Bleak Harbor two or three times a week to see her family. She is estranged from her mother who has cut Carey out of her will.
Carey’s husband, Pete Peters, was once a high-flying commodities trader in Chicago, but he hit a bad streak and lost his job. He convinced Carey to move back to Bleak Harbor where he has opened a medical marijuana shop and is struggling to get the business up and running. Both Carey and Pete have dark secrets that they are hiding from each other, and their relationship is strained for a variety of reasons.
Carey’s son—Pete’s stepson—is fifteen-year-old Danny. Danny is on the autism spectrum and, while brilliant in some respects, can also be a “difficult” child. One thing that Carey and Pete do agree on is that they both love Danny very much. Danny and Pete have an excellent relationship, centered on fishing and other activities that they do together.
The book opens on the eve of Danny’s sixteenth birthday as the annual Dragonfly Festival is about to begin. Pete arrives home expecting to take Danny fishing. He finds that Danny has prepared the sandwiches and drinks they will be taking with them, but the boy himself is nowhere to be found. Shortly thereafter, Pete receives a photo of Danny bound to a chair with what appears to be a bruise on his cheek. Accompanying the photo is a demand for a huge ransom and with that, the book is off and running.
The plot is intricately designed; the characters, even the minor ones, are sharply drawn, and the tension is palpable throughout as Carey and Pete and a variety of law enforcement officials work to save Danny from a particularly fiendish and clever antagonist. In particular, as he demonstrated in the Starvation Lake series, Gruley excels at describing life in a small town like Bleak Harbor, where all sorts of secrets and machinations are at work beneath the surface. The setting is expertly rendered and becomes a character in and of itself. All in all, this is a very entertaining novel and the reader leaves the book very much hoping that it will not be another six years before we hear from Bryan Gruley again. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.