The Hanging Tree by Bryan Gruley

the-hanging-tree.jpgBy Terry DiDomenico

Just the name fires up the imagination – Starvation Lake.

Even better, it’s a real place – a small town in Michigan that has folklore of its own. And following the dictum to write what you know, newcomer Bryan Gruley used the locale as the setting for his suspense novels, starting with last year’s Starvation Lake and continuing with this month’s release The Hanging Tree.

Starvation Lake is a small community whose claim to fame was almost winning an ice hockey championship. Indeed, much of the recent history of the town is connected in some way to its hockey.  In Starvation Lake, pieces of a snowmobile wash up near the slowly dying town. The same snowmobile that belonged to Starvation’s legendary hockey coach whose fatal accident happened five miles away and on a different lake.  The evidence points to murder.

Our narrator is the editor of the local newspaper, Gus Carpenter, who recently returned to Starvation after he failed to make it big with the Detroit Times. Years earlier he was the unfortunate goalie who let a state championship get away that not only crushed the dreams of his coach but also earned him the enmity of his fellow townspeople. Investigating the murder of his former coach leads Gus to discover holes in the town’s past that seem to conceal dark and disturbing secrets.

The Hanging Tree opens with the discovery of a woman hanging from the shoe tree (which has its own history). Not just any woman, but Gus’ second cousin who just happens to be the best friend of the woman he is seeing. A woman whose recent return to her hometown is just as mysterious as the circumstances surrounding her death.

gruley-bryan.jpgEven with the family connection, Gus finds himself distracted. He isn’t surprised to learn the town believes his articles in the newspaper are the reason construction on the town’s new ice hockey rink – the rink that was to bring jobs and prosperity back to Starvation – was halted. His working environment is further challenged by the fact his employer would like to see him gone. On the personal front, his girlfriend’s estranged husband is back and (surprise) wants his wife back.

Through Gus, Bryan Gruley deftly tells the tales of Coach Blackburn, Gracie McBride, and Starvation Lake.  There is definitely a third book and Bryan says, “I can envision more beyond that, because I enjoy the characters so much. I’m dying to know what will happen to Soupy and Bea and Darlene and the River Rats. The only way to find out is to sit down and write it.”

Some of the mystery Bryan writes can probably be attributed to where he writes. Most of his fiction is written in the second-floor office of his home on Chicago’s north side. It’s the office with the desk made from bulletproof plastic, “complete with .45 caliber bullets shot into the plastic.” This gritty reminder is juxtaposed with a far gentler place: “When I’m at my Dad’s cottage in northern Michigan, I love to write sitting on the oak swing overlooking the lake.”

How he writes is a partial mystery as well. Bryan doesn’t outline and admits he is not much of a planner. “I know where the story begins and I have a vague idea of how it ends,” he says. “Then I start writing and, yes, I discover the story along with my characters.” While writing, he keeps notes to help him keep track of story arcs he needs to follow through on and loose ends that need to be tied up. In a way these notes form a rough outline of what’s to come.

“Figuring out how to make the plot not seem contrived gave me the most trouble,” Bryan said. “I do better when I’m focusing on characters and letting them behave. But readers crave story too. With Hanging Tree, I wasn’t happy entirely happy with the book even after the third draft. On the copy edit I made hundreds of small changes and rewrote or added a dozen or so scenes. That was great fun and in the end, I was happy, so I hope the readers are happy.”

Readers who check out Bryan’s website should be happy with what they find there. Atwww.bryangruley.com there is the usual author information but what really makes the site shine is its sister site: www.starvationlake.com. Click there and you can begin a virtual tour, visiting many of the places found in the book and learning more about the town and its citizens. And Bryan says there will be a third site for The Hanging Tree(www.hangingtree.com).

The Starvation Lake books are filled with three of Bryan’s passions: ice hockey, northern Michigan, and newspapers. He has played ice hockey since he was a boy in Detroit and still plays regularly at Johnny’s Ice House in Chicago. Big Twin Lake figures prominently in his childhood memories and the family still gathers at his Dad’s cottage there. Gus’s paper, the Pine County Pilot, faces many of the same challenges as real newspapers struggling to survive in our instant news environment.

By day, Bryan is the Chicago Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal. He has won numerous awards for his writing and reporting including a Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to the Journal’s coverage about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  His non-fiction book, Paper Losses: A Modern Epic of Greed and Betrayal at America’s Two Largest Newspaper Companies, is also a prizewinner.

The Mystery Writers of America recently nominated Starvation Lake, now in its eighth printing, for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. And coinciding with our own ThrillerFest, Bryan was in New York in early July to pick up Strand Magazine’s Best First Novel Award for Starvation Lake.

The Hanging Tree is the top pick on the IndieNext List for August.

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