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Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Skeleton Box, by Bryan Gruley (hardcover, $25)

Starvation Lake, Michigan is like Cabot Cove, Maine, home of  television's redoubtable Jessica Fletcher. It's hard to believe such a small place can harbor so many dark secrets and daring killers. Gus Carpenter is the center of the storm and, unlike Jessica Fletcher, he doesn't have a cozy cottage and bumbling but lovable sidekicks. And as the name implies, Starvation Lake is not abundantly blessed.

Bryan Gruley has set his book in March of 2000. Gus has returned to his hometown after having left a big-time reporting gig in Detroit in disgrace. He returns to a town that unfortunately remembers another disgrace, one that took place when he was just a kid. As the goalie for the high school ice hockey team, he let through the winning goal for the other team, causing his team to lose the state championship. Gus can't win.

Gus can't win in many respects. His hometown newspaper, which he edits, is in trouble. His new reporter seems to have a big independent streak. He's in no-man's-land with the love of his life. Someone has been breaking into homes in Starvation Lake but taking nothing. Then a tragedy befalls his mother, a woman already beset by a faltering memory. Once again Gus finds himself investigating events that happened in the distant past in order to bring justice to the present.

Gruley captures small-town life very well. Everybody sticks a nose into everybody else's business. And secrets. It doesn't take much to make a small town falter, and Gruley shows us the intertwined interests of such a community.

All three of Gruley's books have revolved around Gus and his family. Each subsequent story has built upon the revelations in the prior book. His stories aren't so much mysteries as they are chapters in Gus' life. At the end of each book the question is, Can Gus be happy? He is carrying so much baggage, it's a wonder he doesn't crack through the ice when he takes to the rink. It's hard not to cheer for Gus, for his hope for redemption, forgiveness, love. Starvation Lake is the best of the bunch so far, primarily because we heard Gus' engaging voice for the first time.

Gruley has been quoted extensively about his three-book deal with Touchstone. Does that mean that this, the third Gus Carpenter book, is the end of the series? I hope not. There must be loads of skeletons still buried somewhere in Starvation Lake.


  1. Thank you, Barbara, for reading and for your thoughtful comments. But I have to think that if you thought my first book was the best, it's time for me to move on and try something else. Wouldn't you agree?

  2. To paraphrase myself, I liked "Starvation Lake" the best because it was the first time we heard Gus' voice. I've loved them all. Good job, Bryan!