Monday, July 30, 2012

Return to Starvation Lake

Bryan Gruley returns to Starvation Lake, a small Michigan town that's clearly seen better days, in the second Gus Carpenter novel, The Hanging Tree. As was apparent in Gruley's debut novel, Starvation Lake, Gus has seen better days as well. One of the great goalies ever to come out of a hockey-crazed town, Gus failed the team at a critical moment years earlier and neither the town nor Gus have ever forgotten. Gus once left Starvation Lake to become a hotshot reporter at a major Detroit newspaper, but that job ended ignominiously as well, and so Gus is now back home, living with his mother, and working as the executive editor of the local newspaper. The paper is owned by a media company that cares almost nothing for traditional journalism; it publishes only twice a week, and it is most often scooped on any major story by the local television station.

Gus is now dating a deputy sheriff, the almost ex-wife of another former Starvation Lake hockey great who has now left town. Gus and the deputy, Darlene, are interrupted one night when Darlene is called to the scene of a tragedy. As the town's intrepid reporter, Gus follows her to the scene only to find a woman named Gracie McBride hanging from a tree limb. Gracie was once Darlene's best friend. She was also Gus's second cousin, though they really didn't get along. Gracie recently returned to Starvation Lake after a long and mysterious absence.

The coroner rules Gracie's death a suicide, but neither Gus nor Darlene is convinced of the verdict. Gus decides to trace Gracie's mysterious past in an effort to discover what lay behind her death. At the same time, he's caught up in an investigation of the town's effort to build a new hockey rink. The rink is a tremendously popular project, but Gus uncovers problems with the development that no one else in town apparently wants to hear about.

Gus's investigations entangle him with a number of shady and very scary characters, and there's obviously a lot going on below the surface of this placid little town. Before his investigation is finished, both Gus and the reader will be in for a very wild ride.

These two books are the start of what promises to be an excellent series with an unusual and engaging protagonist. More than that, Gruley, who is the Chicago bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, has brilliantly captured here the dynamics of a small town that is obviously on the ropes and desperate to recapture some of its former glory. In relating Gus's struggles as the editor of the Pine County Pilot, he also makes some very telling comments about the state of contemporary journalism.

Readers who might be attracted to this series would be well-advised to begin with the first book, Starvation Lake, which introduces Gus Carpenter and describes in some detail his history in Starvation Lake.

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