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Posts Tagged ‘small-town reporter’

THE SKELETON BOX by Bryan Gruley: Book Review

Ice hockey is the be-all and end-all in the northern Michigan town of Starvation Lake.

Gus Carpenter, the editor of the Pine County Pilot, is infamous in the area for having let the winning goal slip between his legs when he was a teenager on the town’s hockey team. His team lost the state championship to its bitter rival, and in a way the rest of Gus’ life has been trying to make up for that unfortunate moment nineteen years earlier.

Now playing in the adult league as the goalie for the Chowder Heads of the Midnight Hour Men’s League, Gus is called out of the locker room after a game by a deputy sheriff and taken to his mother’s house.  There Gus finds that his mother’s best friend and quasi-caregiver, Phyllis Bontrager, has been killed in Bea Carpenter’s house.

The town has been hit by a rash of burglaries over the past few weeks. It’s being called the “Bingo Night Burglaries” because each one has taken place on a night that the weekly bingo game is being held at St. Valentine’s Church.  The strangest part of these burglaries is that nothing appears to have been taken from any of the homes, but personal records have been rifled.

Usually both Phyllis and Bea would have been at that game, but Bea tells her son that she hadn’t felt like going and Phyllis was keeping her company.  Bea’s memory loss is intermittently getting worse; sometimes her memory is fine and sometimes it isn’t.  All she’s able to tell the police is that she had gone to bed, with Phyllis downstairs, then gotten up to use the bathroom, and there she found Phyllis bleeding on the floor.  She knew to call 911 but has no idea of how someone got into her house or why they’d want to murder her friend.

To further complicate the situation, Gus’ former girlfriend, Darlene Esper, is both a county deputy sheriff and daughter of the victim. In Phyllis’ last moments, she called her daughter and left a message on her cell’s voice mail that there was someone in Bea’s house, but Darlene was responding to another call and decided she could call her mother back.  But by then it was too late.

Gus had left Starvation Lake years before to make a name for himself in Detroit’s newspaper world.  But a brush with the law had ended his career there and sent him back home.  Now he edits the twice-weekly Pilot, along with a fellow journalist who also gave up the fast track in the Motor City to come to Starvation Lake.  Luke Whistler, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, had come to town to take things a bit easier, he said, to get away from the frantic pace of the Free Press but not to retire.  He’s a tireless investigator, and once he gets the bit between his teeth, he won’t let go of a story.

Into this mix comes Wayland Breck, a stranger from the city who is involved in a Christian camp on the outskirts of town.  He’s fighting the town council to object to a raise in the group’s taxes, and his hold over the people living in the compound seems total and eerie.  Is there more to Wayland’s crusade than taxes?  Where did he come from and why is he here?  And why is his hold on the people in the compound so tight?

The Skeleton Box holds a lot of secrets, some going back more than sixty years.  Like Pandora’s box, once the skeleton box is opened it can’t be closed again.

Bryan Gruley has written an intriguing follow-up to the two previous novels in the Gus Carpenter series. His writing is sharp and will keep you turning until the very surprising end of the story.   Guy is a terrific protagonist, one I’m anxious to see again.

You can read more about Bryan Gruley at his web site.