Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mystery Book Review: Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley

by
A Gus Carpenter Mystery

Touchstone (Trade Paperback)
ISBN-10: 1-4165-6362-8 (1416563628)
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-6362-4 (9781416563624)
Publication Date: March 2009
List Price: $14.00

Review: Bryan Gruley's debut mystery, Starvation Lake, introduces newspaper editor and reporter Gus Carpenter investigating the decade old mysterious death of his hockey coach.

Jack Blackburn was more than a coach: he was a mentor to the boys of Starvation, a small town in the upper region of the lower peninsula of Michigan. Throughout the 1970s Blackburn helped put Starvation on the map, turning it into a hockey powerhouse in the state. As a teenager, Gus and his buddies were regulars on the team and in their final year of high school they had a chance to bring the state championship to Starvation. In a play the townspeople will never let him forget, goalie Gus let the opposing team's winning puck by him, depriving the school of the championship and the town of bragging rights. To escape the humiliation, Gus left for Detroit to pursue a career as a reporter. During the time Gus was away, Coach Blackburn had a tragic and fatal accident, falling through the lake's ice one winter while snowmobiling. His body was never recovered. Now, years later, Gus is back in Starvation as editor of the local paper. Blackburn's snowmobile has just washed up on the shore of a different lake reopening the mystery of the circumstances of his death. Gus' reporting instincts tell him there's a story here, but as he digs deeper he comes to realize that the coach he so much admired is someone he may never have really known at all.

Starvation Lake is alternately a brilliantly written novel and a seriously flawed one. On the positive side is the complex, deeply conflicted character of Gus Carpenter. The story is told from his perspective and as a newspaper reporter with deep roots in his community this approach works well. The other characters are nearly as richly drawn and the setting is perfect. The mystery itself is more than a little derivative, but it's handled exceptionally well. Starvation Lake sets out strong and ends even stronger, but it is the middle 150 pages or so that nearly derails the reader's interest.

For starters, the inevitable twist is hardly unexpected as it is foreshadowed quite early. No reader is going to be taken by surprise. As such, it takes far too long for the story to reveal it. But once it finally happens, the plot is quickly able to regain the momentum that was so perilously close to being completely lost due to the mid-book inclusion of (1) a steady stream of backstories and (2) the seemingly endless recounting of hockey games, past and present. Though some of the backstories are admittedly relevant to the plot, most seem to simply exist as transitional filler. As tedious as they can be, they are still far more interesting than the hockey games. Even the most ardent sports fans would be hard-pressed not to start skimming through the play-by-plays here.

An ambivalent review, to be sure. More positive than negative, still, it's disappointing that a more critical eye towards editing Starvation Lake wasn't exercised. (A postscripted Q and A with the author suggests this is the first of a series to feature Gus Carpenter.)

Special thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing an ARC of Starvation Lake for this review.

Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved.

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Synopsis (from the publisher): In the dead of a Michigan winter, pieces of a snowmobile wash up near the crumbling small town of Starvation Lake—the same snowmobile that went down with Starvation’s legendary hockey coach years earlier. But everybody knows Coach Blackburn’s accident happened five miles away on a different lake. As rumors buzz about mysterious underground tunnels, the evidence from the snowmobile says one thing: murder.

Gus Carpenter, editor of the local newspaper, has recently returned to Starvation after a failed attempt to make it big at the Detroit Times. In his youth, Gus was the goalie that let a state championship get away, crushing Coach’s dreams and earning the town’s enmity. Now he’s investigating the murder of his former coach. But even more unsettling to Gus are the holes in the town’s past, and the gnawing suspicion that those holes may conceal some dark and disturbing secrets—secrets that some of the people closest to him may have killed to keep.

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