Gus Carpenter is not the only one who left Starvation Lake for bigger pastures in Detroit only to return home like a whipped dog. His second cousin, Gracie McBride, did the same thing. Gus never did get along well with Gracie despite the fact she was at his house when they were growing up almost as much as he was. Maybe it was because she was there so much and his own Mom seemed more interested in her at times as she was the daughter she never had. Or, maybe it was something else that had them at odds as kids and had kept them that way as adults. As this novel opens in February 1999, Gus will never know and won't ever be able to fix anything.
Gracie is dead.
“They found her hanging in the shoe tree at the edge of town” (page 7)
Despite the outward appearances of a classic suicide, Gus and a couple of others don't buy the easy answer of suicide. Proving that it wasn't a suicide isn't going to be easy for a variety of reasons beyond the fact that Gracie wasn't the easiest to get to know. Too many people are way too close to the situation which adds a difficulty to the investigation. That is part of the peril of life in a small town such as Starvation Lake where everyone knows everything you ever did and has an opinion on all of it.
Gus has numerous other problems beyond the death of Gracie and the impact it has had on his elderly mother. A media conglomerate has taken over his newspaper, making him and his small paper a microscopic cog in a much larger media machine. Both he and his work are being babysat by the nephew of the chief Executive of the new ownership known as Media North.
Penny pinching, not news gathering, is now the rule of the day as well as not annoying those that matter a bit more than regular folks. Pointing out issues regarding a proposed new hockey ink in town certainly have not endeared Gus to the new ownership crowd or the locals who can't get dollar signs out of their eyes long enough to look at the facts.
Gracie's death has also hit his girlfriend, Darlene pretty hard. Darlene does not believe it was a suicide either but in her position as Pine County Sheriff's Deputy can't do much about it. Her boss, Sheriff Dingus, does not seem interested in really digging into the matter and has no love for Gus. Further complicating matters is the fact that Darlene's estranged husband is back and intends to get her back one way or another.
The result is a worthy sequel to the very good debut novel “Starvation Lake.”
Nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel, it will be no surprise when this novel is also nominated for an Edgar Award. Filled with tension and descriptive nuance, the novel provides complex story lines operating on multiple levels along with a powerfully good mystery.
Those who have a writerly bent will also be interested ion how often and seamlessly the author uses flashbacks to enhance the story going forward. All too often flashbacks serve as story stoppers but not in this case where they are used to provide backstory and considerable depth to the characters as well as advancing current story elements forward.
If you have not read Mr. Bryan Gruley before, now is an excellent time to start.
The Hanging Tree: A Starvation Lake Mystery
Touchstone (Simon & Schuster)
Large Trade Paperback
325 Pages (includes reading group guide and interview)
Material supplied by the author in exchange for my objective review.
Kevin R. Tipple © 2010