The Hanging Tree
By Bryan Gruley
Simon and Schuster - $15
By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli
I challenge you to read Bryan Gruleys The Hanging Tree and then drive by the shoe tree on US 131 north of Kalkaska and not see a body hanging among the highest branches. As I drove passed the tree recently, there she was, Gruleys Gracie McBride, swinging amid the sneakers and flip-flops. A truly sad and riveting image to begin a book.
In this second in Gruleys Starvation Lake mystery series, Gus Carpenter, executive editor of the Starvation Lake Village newspaper, the Pine Country Pilot, is not only in trouble over negative stories that could cost the town a new hockey rink, but deeply involved in the mystery surrounding Gracies death. The verdict is suicide.
Gracie McBride used to live, over 20 years before, at Gus home. His mother, a sweet and caring woman, had taken the young girl in when her own mother was too involved with yet another man to look out for her own daughter. The thing is, Gus never really got along with Gracie and now there is, perhaps, a little guilt involved as Gus watches Gracies body swing high in the snow-covered branches. His married lover, a sheriffs deputy, has to shut him out of the investigation or face losing her job. His newspaper has been pressuring him to tame his hockey rink stories down but Gus isnt the kind of man who can turn his back on truth.
Quickly the people of Starvation Lake begin shouting foul over the verdict of suicide. Even Gus mom, who is growing older and having lapses of memory, still insists Gracie, a troubled girl to be sure, would never take her own life. Though she hadnt seen her in the 18 years shes been gone from town, his mother knows secrets that will eventually lead Gus to some hard places buried deep within the fabric of the town.
After finding little to explain Gracies death, Gus is certain the answer was likely to be found somewhere other than Starvation Lake. Somewhere downstate . . . where Gracie had gone to live so long before.
It is these 18 years that Gus is forced to resurrect, compelling him to face some of his own demons on a trip down to the Detroit area where he must retrace her past while reliving some of his own. Her past is not a gentle one. Her past is seamy and lurid. But what was there in that past to bring Gracie back to the village of Starvation Lake? And what was there in that past driving her to suicide? Or to something worse being murdered?
The story really begins with this trip to Detroit. Past and present collidefor Gus and for Gracie. Sadness deepens as Gracies one real love slowly reveals itself. Gus investigation becomes a melancholy and vicious journey into deadly years where suicide or murder seem equally likely outcomes. Added to Gracies past is the rapid concern of a sports-mad village, hoping to get this new rink. A collision of interests must follow. It is up to Gus to weigh the truth and report what he knows even though doing so could cost him his job.
Our part of Northern Michigan seems to be getting a lot of literary attention lately with Jennifer Sowles novel Admissions, based in Building 50 and the surroundings of the old State Mental Hospital; with all the wonderful books by Jim Harrison; with Mardi Links award-winning Isadores Secret; Aaron Standers locally-based mysteries, and more books coming in daily that explore the secret and not so secret places in Northern Michigan. It seems, now with Gruleys new series, to be a good time, even an historical time for the arts in and around Traverse City. New visual artists and photographers find us every month; writers, here for the National Writers Series, are drawn to our forests and lakes and people; Michael Moores Traverse City Film Festival brings film makers and people who love film to the area for the first time.
As I write this review Im sitting at a picnic table set on the beach of the real Starvation Lake, looking out on barely rippling waters where a single canoe glides passed two jutting points of land dividing the narrow lake. I cant help wondering how this (I was going to say bucolic but an editor has informed me that the word is overused so Ill say . . . ) tranquil setting has become the ersatz setting for so much murder and mayhem.
Speaking as a mystery writer Im getting the feeling that writers and readers alike are tiring just a little of big city crime, gritty detectives, almost banal drug gangs, and murderers with little or no imagination. Maybe some real people are in order, with real grudges and novel ways of killing each other that only the truly creative folks back in the woodsmaybe during an overly long wintercan think up.
As Gus Carpenter says, I liked the lake in winter. . . the winter beach took me into a cocoon of wind and wet and cold that kept out the tinny claptrap surrounding the towns preoccupations of the moment.
Some of the true crime stories Ive read from up here outdo almost all others for inventiveness. Why not deep woods and dark waters for dead bodies and new forms of evil? Why not a body hanging in the shoe tree?
Elizabeth Kane Buzzellis latest mystery, Dead Sleeping Shaman, is in bookstores now.