Winters are long in Starvation Lake, a fading Northern Michigan town that is devoted to hockey. Fortunately, each season seems to bring at least one murder to keep life interesting and Gus Carpenter, executive editor of the Pine County Pilot, busy.
Author Bryan Gruley, a reporter-at-large for Bloomberg News, writing long-form features for Bloomberg Businessweek magazine., has just completed his third Starvation Lake Mystery, The Skeleton Box(Touchstone Books 2013; $25). His first mystery, Starvation Lake, won the Strand Magazine Critics Award and was an Edgar Award nominee and his second, The Hanging Tree garnered the #1 IndieNext Pick for August 2010, was named a Michigan Notable Book for 2011, a Kirkus Reviews Best Mystery of 2010. It has been optioned for a movie by writer-director John Gray.
Once a star hockey player until he botched the chance for the town to win a major tournament, Gus returned to Starvation Lake after another big loss – that of his prestigious job and chance of winning a Pulitzer Prize at a major Detroit newspaper. Working to prove that a car company knew of a defect that caused horrific deaths, he broke into the company’s voice mail.
But life in Starvation Lake is never boring as there are secrets and murders that keep Gus busy including the latest – a string of burglaries that culminate when Gus’s mother, who is in the first stages of Alzheimer’s and her neighbor known as Mrs. B are attacked and Mrs. B, as she is dying murmurs a name the town would rather forget. Now Gus, who is trying to save his failing newspaper, has to make a decision. Are there secrets in the past that are better left undiscovered?
Maybe it’s best to break for a little geography here. There is actually a lake called Starvation just three miles from Big Twin Lake where Gruley and his family, who are from the Detroit area, spent their summers. Gruley says there’s a great bar called The Hideaway near the real Starvation Lake, but no town. Instead, Starvation Lake is based on many of the small towns up north that never quite made it as tourist destinations like the well known and popular Traverse City, Charlevoix and Petoskey.
As for hockey which is part of the weave of the Starvation Lake books, Gruley played in backyard rinks when growing up and continued to play as an adult. The idea for his first book came, says Gruley, when his former agent suggested he write about grown men who play hockey late at night. As for the setting, Gruley still travels to Northern Michigan for recreation.
“I really like small towns,” says Gruley whose complex characters belie the typical story line of small town living. “People really listen to each other all the time at the diner, the bar and at church. It hit me how rich that was. It wasn’t a simple stereotype as others might see it. These aren’t just a bunch of buffoons.”
As for Starvation, Gruley describes it as a small town that’s a bit down on its luck but with aspirations to greater things and filled with mostly nice, sincere people who work hard and play a little too hard sometimes as well.
Gruley gets his ideas from his experiences up north.
The impetus for The Hanging Tree came from what he calls a shoe tree that he would often pass by on his way to visit Big Twin Lake. It was a tree where people had taken to tying shoe strings together and then throwing them up in the air to catch on the tree limbs.
“I started knowing that I wanted to write about the shoe tree,” says Gruley. “In fact I wrote a whole book which I threw out so I started over with this imagine of a woman hanging from the tree and then led to the book.”
The Skeleton Key was inspired by the true story of the 1907 disappearance of a nun in tiny Isadore, Michigan, north of Traverse City,
Gruley, who now lives in Chicago, spent almost sixteen years with The Wall Street Journal where he shared in the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Like Gus, Gruley continues to play hockey, though has never acknowledge blowing the big game and having to move away in disgrace. He also wouldn’t trade his job for being editor of the Pine County Pilot either.
“I wouldn’t take Gus’s job on a bet,” says Gruley. “And I love my new gig with Bloomberg Businessweek. I sometimes yearn to be up north sipping a beer on the deck at Big Twin Lake, but not to live or work there. I do think Gus is part me. He’s a hockey playing journalist and I kind of like fried bologna sandwiches.”
— WHAT: Discussion and book signing with journalist and author Bryan Gruley
— WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday
— WHERE: Bridgman Public Library, 4460 Lake St., Bridgman
— HOW MUCH: Free
— CONTACT: 465-3663 or http://www.bridgmanlibrary.com