September’s Book of the Month is a duel selection, introducing readers to the fictional northern Michigan town of Starvation Lake and big town, turned small town newspaper writer Gus Carpenter. “Starvation Lake” and “The Hanging Tree” are the first two books of a fascinating new mystery series written by Bryan Gruley, the Chicago Bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Gruley brings the things he knows well to these stories- newspapers and hockey- and winds them together with quirky characters, dark secrets, and small town gossip boiling over with both love and hate.
“Starvation Lake” introduces Augustus “Gus” Carpenter, a journalist who has recently left the Detroit Times under circumstances that he would rather forget about and has gone to work for his hometown paper, The Pine County Pilot. The twice weekly paper normally reports the goings on in town- city council meetings, store openings, Cub Scout meetings- but Gus, the once big city reporter, sees journalism differently than reporting on only the things people want to hear. When the snowmobile of former hockey coach Jack Blackburn, who died when it broke through the ice on Starvation Lake, turns up on the shores of another lake five miles distant, Gus begins to question the history of Blackburn’s death, and even Blackburn himself. Figuring out what actually happened pits Gus against nearly the whole town, where everyone would rather let sleeping dogs lie.
In “The Hanging Tree,” we see Gus resign himself to settling back into life in Starvation Lake, the town he tried to escape by going to college and getting a job as a reporter for the Detroit Times. His old girlfriend, now deputy Darlene Esper, has left her husband giving him the opportunity he squandered years before while his problems at the Detroit newspaper seem to have gone away. It’s not where he’d thought he’d be, but it’s better than where he could have ended up. Unfortunately Gracie McBride, Darlene best friend during their teen years and Gus’ second cousin is found hanging in a tree in an apparent suicide. Gus suspects that there is more than meets the eye and although the town wishes he would leave well enough alone and let Gracie rest in peace, Gus can’t do that. Especially when he discovers a connection between Gracie, big shot lawyer Laird Haskell and the new hockey rink that Haskell is trying to build to replace Starvation Lake’s old, run down rink. Gus left Detroit, but it appears that crime from Detroit is following him all the way to Starvation Lake.
Well written and suspenseful, Gruley has given us two great reads about Gus Carpenter and Starvation Lake and I certainly hope he gives us a few more. Towns like this always have secrets floating beneath the surface.
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