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Michigan Mysteries

The Hanging Tree, Bryan Gruley, Touchstone, $15.00.

The Hanging Tree by Bryan Gruley

Bryan Gruley hit the ground running with his first novel, Starvation Lake, which garnered an Edgar nomination.  The second book shares much of the good traits of the first while refining them and making the narrative engine sleeker and faster. Lots of the stuff that was so good in the first book - the setting, the hockey, and the intertwining of character are all back to the front burner, but they're better utilized.  You know how some musicals are draggy and stupid, and some of them actually use the songs to advance the plot?  In the first book I could tell Gruley's enthusiasm for hockey was getting the better of him a little bit.  In the second book, while there's still plenty of hockey, the strategic placement of games advances both the plot and Gruley's themes.  And he still gives you the gritty feel of the game from a player's perspective.

Some authors - in fact most - have a few themes that interest them and that they like to examine.  Gruley, just two books in to his series about small town newspaper editor Gus Carpenter, appears to have an interest in family loyalty, lack of same, and the mistreatment of the weaker by the stronger.  He's also interested in whether it's a good idea to throw the needs of a talented child under the bus in the service of his talent (since in both books the talent resides in a hockey player, I'll go with “he”.)  Almost any talent, of course, could be substituted, and in today's super striving world it's probably worth a thought or two, even though Gruley's books are set not in the present but about ten years in the past.

This book also has a nice over arching metaphor, something I'm always a sucker for.  The story opens at the “Shoe Tree” - a huge tree in Starvation Lake filled with the shoes of boyfriends & girlfriends who have tied two shoes together and tossed them over a high branch in perpetuity.  Unfortunately, what's found in the “shoe tree” isn't a pair of shoes, but the body of Gus' cousin (and for all practical purposes, his sister) Gracie McBride, hanging from a high branch.  The tree is both the repository of memory and of tragedy - as well as of the broken relationships, in some cases, of the owners of the shoes.  The visual, for a book, is a strong one and it's almost physically painful to imagine it.

The story becomes the story of the dead woman, Gracie, who grew up practically next door to Gus and his mother and who more or less moved in whenever her mother had a new boyfriend.  As Gus investigates her life - he's sure her death isn't a suicide - he learns more about her than he knew in life, and as her death appears somehow connected to the building of a new hockey rink in town, the layers Gus is unpeeling involve town politics, Detroit heavy hitters, and the mysterious life of his cousin, who had spent many years away from Starvation Lake living in Detroit.

Though Gruley lives in Chicago, he grew up in Michigan, and his passion for the state is plain, as is his love of hockey, which infuses his writing with a nice specificity and vividness that makes it stand out.  Hockey isn't my sport but I spent enough freezing hours watching my brother play pee wee hockey and going to Blackhawk games with my Dad on occasion that the hockey parts speak to me.  His use of hockey as a metaphor for the raw power of competition - another theme that runs through this book - is expertly handled.  (Also you'll know what kind of skates not to wear should you ever be a goalie.)

The real maturity here though is Gruley's use of emotional power - his depiction of Gracie and Gus and their relationship to the people around them, including Gus' mother, is beautifully done.  The end of the book made me cry, which for me is high praise.  You won't forget Gracie McBride anytime soon yourself.

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