Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Review of Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley

Starvation Lake
Bryan Gruley
Simon and Schuster
TPB, 370 p., $15.00
ebook $11.99 Kindle, Nook

Yes, I know this book is a mystery, and this blog is devoted to heroic fantasy and historical adventure.  But this is what I've been reading this week, and I wanted to discuss it here.  I'd spent the two previous weeks trying to read a science fiction novel (which I'll review at the other blog in a day or two) and wanted something different to read.  It won't be the first mystery I've reviewed here.

I'll be looking at short fantasy fiction the rest of the week.

Anyway, the basic set up is this.  One winter night ten years ago a popular youth hockey coach was out snowmobiling with a friend on Starvation Lake when his snowmobile  went through a thin spot in the ice, killing him.  Neither the body nor the snowmobile were ever recovered.  Now the snowmobile has washed up on the beach.  There are just two problems.  The first is that there's a bullet hole in it.  The second is that it's on the beach of an entirely different lake.

Gus Carpenter was once the star goalie for the team Coach Blackburn took to the state championships.  He failed to stop a shot in overtime, causing a loss he's still getting flak over more than a decade later.  No team from the town of Starvation Lake has come close to the playoffs since.  Gus left shortly after that to become a reporter for a major paper in Detroit and wasn't around when Coach Blackburn's snowmobile went through the ice into the frigid waters.

Now Gus has come home again, although someone failed to tell him you can't do that.  But he's about to find out.  As the editor of the local paper, he immediately becomes involved in the investigation of what now appears to be the murder of his former coach.

For a first novel, this one was a hum-dinger.  Gruley populates the fictional town of Starvation Lake with real people.  At least they seem real.  They have their own personalities and histories and secrets.  By the time the book ended, I felt I knew many of them.  The depth of characterization was impressive, especially for a debut novel.

And the mystery works well.  This is a detailed, complexly layered novel where that little throw-away detail in the fourth chapter or the tenth or what-have-you turns out to be something major.  It was easy to see why this one was shortlisted for an Edgar Award from the MWA.  There are two sequels.  I know from experience that the second novel in a series doesn't always live up to the inaugural entry, but even so, it the others are half as good as this one, they'll be worth reading.

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