I’m halfway through the Mystery Writers of America Edgar nominees for Best First Novel by an American Author. Chicago’s own Bryan Gruley is the author of Starvation Lake, a mystery that features way more hockey than I ever thought I’d put up with.
The blurbs on the book are notable. Harlan Coben is long one of my favorites, and his promo is not surprising given the sports connection – his protagonist Myron Bolitar is a former pro basketball player and sports agent. Other blurbs come from Michael Connelly, C.J. Box, George Pelecanos, and the lesser-known Michael Harvey. Gruley’s book had the paradoxical effect of making me want to remind myself what Michael Harvey’s written. Answer: The Chicago Way and The Fifth Floor.
Starvation Lake’s a town in Michigan, a place where small-town newspaper editor Gus Carpenter grew up, played junior hockey for the legendary Coach Blackburn’s River Rats and personally lost the team’s only chance at a trophy, and came home to lick his wounds after being fired, amid much reporting-related scandal, from the Detroit Times. Details of the scandal are doled out slowly in the first section of the book, then build to help ratchet up the tension.
Gus is managing the just fine with the help of a too-ballsy-for-her-own-good junior reporter named Joanie, has the chance to redeem himself if he can earn a promotion, and is right back where he used to be, half in love with former girlfriend Darlene and playing hockey with his former River Rats teammates, now all grown up. Like little acorns make mighty oaks, the friends (good guys) and foes (bad guys) haven’t changed much. But then one day, Coach Blackburn’s snowmobile emerges from the lake where it had fallen through the ice a dozen years ago… with a bullet hole in it. Blackburn had been buried in absentia, as the body was never found, and the whole thing was written up as a tragic accident. Was the coach murdered? Or was it an accident, as one of Gus’ friends maintains?
Newspaper reporting skills equal mystery-solving skills, and Gus goes to work, uncovering information that he was too naive to see the first time around, including answers to long-buried questions like “Why won’t mom let me overnight with Coach Blackburn at his billet? All my friends’ moms let them go!” and “Why did Coach Blackburn suddenly shut out my friend who’s the best player on my team?” and “Where do some of these guys get all the money they spend?”
Gus solves the mystery and justice prevails, but not without a lot of anguish and tragedy. Starvation Lake is a tightly plotted and immensely readable book; even the hockey is so well-done I didn’t skip over it. As many mysteries are, it’s written in the first person and the character’s voice is clear and engaging. Here’s a sample:
Soupy was what hockey players admiringly call a “dangler,” with hands that cradled the puck as if it were no heavier than a tennis ball. He could dangle it between his skates, behind his back, one-handed, backhanded, skating backward, on one knee. All the while the puck stuck to his stick like a nickname. He had a thousand moves that he’d practiced for hours in his basement or late at night on a patch of ice behind his garage. He liked to practice in the darkness, the darker the better, so he was forced to rely not on his eyes, but on simply feeling the puck on his stick blade with his amazingly sure hands. That way he’d never have to look down, he could always be scanning the ice for an opening or an open man, and he’d always be ready when the opposing defenseman was lining him up for a hit.
The mystery’s weakness is too-heavy signaling of the motivation related to Gus’ childhood backstory… pretty early on, I had Coach Blackburn pegged and the reader is always suspicious when they bury an empty casket because they can’t find the body. But it’s a skillful book, and like A Bad Day for Sorry, has the makings of a series. It’s a bit of a close call, but Starvation Lake takes the lead in the Literary Lunchbox Edgar competition.
- Starvation Lake – Bryan Gruley
- A Bad Day for Sorry – Sophie Littlefield
- The Weight of Silence – Heather Gudenkauf
Still to read: The Shadow of Gotham, The Girl She Used to Be, and Black Water Rising!