In the third book of the Starvation Lake series, Gus Carpenter finds himself in the midst of a "treasure" hunt when someone breaks into his mother's home and murders Phyllis Bontrager.
There have been a series of "Bingo Night B&Es" in Starvation, but the perpetrator isn't stealing anything. Then when the culprit breaks into Bea Carpenter's house, he's surprised to find someone there. Bea is sleeping but Phyllis interrupts the intruder and pays with her life.
An anonymous tip begins to shine suspicion on a group of religious folks living in trailers on Roy "Tatch" Dobrick's land. They have a new member who seems to be taking control of the group and initiating some bothersome behaviors, like challenging the city's land taxation of the group and organizing everyone to dig in search of a "septic field."
Sheriff Aho, meanwhile, is in fear of losing the next election, and thereby his job, so he's overcompensating by arresting everyone in suspicion of killing Phylllis. And when one of those people is Gus's own mother, he goes on a search for the real killer. In his wildest dreams, Gus never imagined the investigation to lead him where it does.
It's been a couple of years since Bryan Gruley's last book, and THE SKELETON BOX is well worth that wait. Gruley delivers another stellar contribution to his series revolving around an amateur hockey-playing journalist in the town of Starvation Lake, Michigan.
Gus's former cub reporter Joanie has moved on to bigger papers and bigger cities, but still makes an appearance in the book. And Gruley introduces new characters in the form of Whistler, Gus's new reporter, and "Tatch," Gus's fellow goalie from youth hockey. The real star of THE SKELETON BOX, however, is Gus's mother, Bea. As her character is flushed out in the pages of the novel, Gruley's talent for character development shines. Gruley also has a knack for leading readers astray. You'll start to feel as though you have the mystery solved, the villain uncovered, and then realize it is only the tip of the iceberg.
The plot of THE SKELETON BOX, like its predecessors, is a complexity of layers. The authenticity of his characters helps in that complexity; authentic people are, after all, complex. But the events of the plot take the reader in a multitude of directions, both geographically and through time. Unlike a long car ride, however, the reader isn't left feeling like, "are we there yet?" Instead the reader is anxiously devouring the scenery, eagerly anticipating the destination but imbibing all the richness along the way.
One of my personal favorite elements of Gruley's writing in this series is his use of hockey metaphor. Not being a big hockey fan, I am fascinated by the fact that he can draw me in with unique imagery. Often sports metaphors fall flat; they're cliche and drab, but Gruley's metaphors pop; they're vivid and mesmerizing:
"A feeling came over me, a feeling I knew well from playing goalie. You're in the net and a guy is bearing down on you and you know you have the angle cut off but he's a sniper who can detect the tiniest gap you've unwittingly left between your legs or under one of your arms, so you tighten up from head to toe and slide out another six inches to cut off even more of his angle.
Then his stick unwinds and follows through and you feel the puck hit you at almost the same instant that you realize you saw it, or at least a black blur that must have been it, and you know you have it but you're not sure where, maybe your glove, maybe your gut, maybe your crotch, maybe beneath a leg pad, and you wrap yourself in to a tuck while the shooter crashes in and your defensemen scramble around looking for the puck.
You're terrified that it will flop out from wherever you're holding it and lie there for the shooter or one of his teammates to slap into the net. You feel the fear in knowing that you have hold of something, but you don't really know where it is, and you might lose it before you ever get control. And if you let that happen, then it will be your fault, and your fault alone. Because it is your job to keep the puck out of your net. You and only you."
THE SKELETON BOX - and its predecessors - are cerebral crime novels. Gruley takes his readers inside the minds of his characters, poking and prodding. This approach results in readers connecting with the characters and examining their own thoughts, motivations, emotions and...skeleton boxes.
Gruley leaves his protagonist with a bit of uncertainty and I hope that means more to come in the town of Starvation Lake. While I hope the wait for that "more to come" isn't as long as it was between books two and three, if the product is as grand as THE SKELETON BOX, you won't hear any complaints from me.
THE SKELETON BOX is available now in hardcover from Touchstone Books (ISBN: 978-1-4165-6366-2). Rich Orlow narrated the first two books in this series on audio for Recorded Books and I hope that means he will continue with this one as he did an outstanding job with STARVATION LAKE and THE HANGING TREE. THE SKELETON BOX is not, however, available in audio format at this date.