Books: The Hanging Tree, by Bryan Gruley

Bryan Gruley's novel creates a dark mystery around Starvation Lake


Shadows huddle in the tall pines near Northern Michigan’s Starvation Lake. But the disparity between what seems to be and what is can’t be blamed on the rural blackness that’s so much more complete than what passes for night skies in the city.

Neither sun nor streetlamps can illuminate the blindness of face-value assumptions. Like crime that can lurk beneath the surface of an idyllic hamlet, things often aren’t what they seem. Reality is a shapeshifter that morphs based on perspective and whether you really bother to take a good look.

The truth is frustratingly elusive in The Hanging Tree (Touchstone Books, $15). Bryan Gruley’s second novel, set, like his first, in the Starvation Lake area, begins with an apparent suicide that has, as it turns out, far-reaching tentacles.

Gruley — a Detroit native and former Detroit News reporter who lives in Chicago, where he’s The Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau chief — devotes no shortage of page space to hockey and journalism. In Hanging Tree, the two topics mingle like Red Wings fans and newspaper types at downtown’s Anchor Bar.

Even a non-hockey fan can appreciate the thematic analogy when the protagonist muses about the perspective of a goalie. As seen from the net, the game is “a low, flat, horizontal puzzle of bodies and blind spots and caroms and bounces that is constantly being assembled and disassembled …” The point: Reality varies by the angle of one’s view.

In this sequel to Starvation Lake, newspaper reporter/editor Gus Carpenter probes another case. Although the story has Sam Spade undertones, this is a modern tale with fully realized female characters. The protagonist, himself, is surprisingly self-effacing, considering that he’s a jock and a newsman — one with old-school devotion to journalistic principles.

Ink-stained wretches will relate to Carpenter’s jabs at the current state of media affairs, including pressures to skew coverage to favor advertisers and the difficulties of getting a genuine quote.

“He reminded me of CEOs I had interviewed,” Carpenter observes at one point. “While you were listening and taking notes, they sounded colorful and provocative. You imagined you were getting good stuff for your story. But later, when you looked through your notes, you realized they really hadn’t said anything you could use, that it was all bromides and platitudes and generalizations. You had nothing that stuck.”

Hanging Tree’s characters do “stick.” And they may resonate even more with readers who recognize the local context. From Kalkaska to Melvindale, Gruley name-drops: Yack Arena, Better Made chips, The Tigers, even paprikash from the former Al’s Lounge in the Delray neighborhood. 

For metro Detroit readers, the familiarity is fun. Still, the book leads all readers to question how much they really know about the people and places that populate the comfort zone of their own lives.

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