Category Archives: Mystery

Return to Starvation Lake

The Hanging Tree
Bryan Gruley
St. Martin’s
tpb $15.00
electronic $9.73 Kindle $10.93 Nook

Last summer I picked up a mystery, Starvation Lake, by newcomer Bryan Gruley.  I was impressed.  A few weeks ago I finally got around to buying the sequel.

I concluded my review of Starvation Lake with speculation about the sequel, mentioning the fact that sequels sometime don’t live up to the standards set by their predecessors.  That’s not the case here. 

The Hanging Tree is set a year after the events in Starvation Lake.  Gus Carpenter’s cousin Gracie McBride is found one night in a snowstorm hanging from a tree.  There are no tracks, of course.  Nor is there a ladder or any other means present by which Gracie could have reached the branch she from which hangs.  And she’s missing a shoe.  A shoe that’s nowhere to be found.

Of course, this leads Gus to suspect murder.  So does Deputy Sheriff Darlene Esper, Gus’ girlfriend and Gracie’s best friend.  Proving it, though, isn’t going to be easy.  And before it’s over, most of the relationships Gus has with his friends, family, and employer will be put to the test.

I really liked the mystery in Starvation Lake.  It was nice and layered, with a number of twists.  The Hanging Tree is the same, only moreso.  I figured out quite a bit of the mystery in Starvation Lake.  This one kept me guessing more than its predecessor, and there was more than one surprise I didn’t see coming. 

The characters are all human, with their flaws and faults as well as their acts of kindness and nobility.  Mysteries. especially series mysteries, set in small towns tend to have characters that are more caricatures than people.  Gruley never falls into that trap.  I suspect one of the reasons he can write people so well is because he’s been a reporter for so many years, and a Pulitzer Prize winning one at that. 

The Hanging Tree was a top notch mystery, with a depth of character, setting, and theme that you don’t always see.  The next book in the series, The Skeleton Box, comes out next month.  I’m looking forward to it.

A Review of Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley

Starvation Lake
Bryan Gruley
Simon and Schuster
TPB, 370 p., $15.00
ebook $11.99 Kindle, Nook

Yes, I know this book is a mystery, and this blog is devoted to heroic fantasy and historical adventure.  But this is what I’ve been reading this week, and I wanted to discuss it here.  I’d spent the two previous weeks trying to read a science fiction novel (which I’ll review at the other blog in a day or two) and wanted something different to read.  It won’t be the first mystery I’ve reviewed here.

I’ll be looking at short fantasy fiction the rest of the week.

Anyway, the basic set up is this.  One winter night ten years ago a popular youth hockey coach was out snowmobiling with a friend on Starvation Lake when his snowmobile  went through a thin spot in the ice, killing him.  Neither the body nor the snowmobile were ever recovered.  Now the snowmobile has washed up on the beach.  There are just two problems.  The first is that there’s a bullet hole in it.  The second is that it’s on the beach of an entirely different lake.

Gus Carpenter was once the star goalie for the team Coach Blackburn took to the state championships.  He failed to stop a shot in overtime, causing a loss he’s still getting flak over more than a decade later.  No team from the town of Starvation Lake has come close to the playoffs since.  Gus left shortly after that to become a reporter for a major paper in Detroit and wasn’t around when Coach Blackburn’s snowmobile went through the ice into the frigid waters.

Now Gus has come home again, although someone failed to tell him you can’t do that.  But he’s about to find out.  As the editor of the local paper, he immediately becomes involved in the investigation of what now appears to be the murder of his former coach.

For a first novel, this one was a hum-dinger.  Gruley populates the fictional town of Starvation Lake with real people.  At least they seem real.  They have their own personalities and histories and secrets.  By the time the book ended, I felt I knew many of them.  The depth of characterization was impressive, especially for a debut novel.

And the mystery works well.  This is a detailed, complexly layered novel where that little throw-away detail in the fourth chapter or the tenth or what-have-you turns out to be something major.  It was easy to see why this one was shortlisted for an Edgar Award from the MWA.  There are two sequels.  I know from experience that the second novel in a series doesn’t always live up to the inaugural entry, but even so, it the others are half as good as this one, they’ll be worth reading.