In “The Skeleton Box,” author Bryan Gruley returns for a third mystery set in Starvation Lake, a small, faded resort town at the northern end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Recurring protagonist, Gus Carpenter, editor of the local paper, the Pine County Pilot, runs a story about a series of odd local break-ins where belongings are rifled through but nothing is taken.
The elderly citizens of Starvation Lake use Monday night bingo as a main source of entertainment and community gossip. Unfortunately, this bonding activity appears to be determining when and where the break-ins will occur.
The Pilot has dubbed the occurrences “the Monday Night B&Es;,” and area law enforcement has no suspects in the strange crime spree, so frightened elders begin to encourage Carpenter to actively pursue the culprit.
In Gruley’s debut novel, “Starvation Lake,” Carpenter, once a talented big-city investigative reporter, returned home after crashing his career in Detroit and promptly solved a mysterious snowmobiling death.
Then, in “The Hanging Tree,” Carpenter proved a local girl’s “suicide” was murder. Reading these two earlier novels would deepen the examination of gritty small town America and its’ hidden elements but “The Skeleton Box” works well as a stand-alone novel.
However, action from the previous novels do justify why people trust that Carpenter has at least as much a chance to catch the perpetrator as the local sheriff, who is suffering re-election pressure.
Actually, a county commissioner has threatened in the pilot, “Sheriff Aho ought to start doing his job, or we’ll find someone who will.” Aho overcompensates by arresting people willy-nilly, including his election opposition, and eventually, Carpenter’s mother.
Bea Carpenter, age 67, is beginning to display soft signs of pre-dementia - some hit and miss forgetfulness - that fosters a tender protectiveness in her son. She doesn’t yet require home assistance but Gus has developed routines of care that include having Bea’s neighbor and life-long best friend, Phyllis Bontrager, check on Bea late Monday evening when Carpenter is at the local hockey arena, icing his Midnight Men’s League injuries in a bucket of beers. Carpenter is abruptly called out from the locker room and worry about the break-ins blossoms into full – blown panic – Bontrager has been found murdered in Bea’s bathroom. Bea, refusing to attend bingo in a Catholic church, had taken sleeping pills, retired early and apparently slept through the violent incident. Bontrager’s death and Bea’s being taken into custody, guarantee that Carpenter is now pursuing a murderer rather than scooping a story.
Early in the novel, Gruley cleverly uses the fussiness of an older woman exploiting memory issues to foreshadow implications about the Catholic Church. Ultimately, the novel’s title metaphor, the skeleton box, is about old evidence of a long-ago disappearance of a popular young nun.
However, long before this revelation is made, plot complications include an anonymous tip that directs suspicion towards a tattered commune of Christian evangelists living in three old trailers on isolated land.
Recently the marginalized group has been taken over by an aggressive outsider who directs them to challenge property taxes and to spend their days digging random holes, looking for a “septic field.”
Neighbors do begin to wonder about why anyone would hand dig holes during a northern Michigan winter but the Christians do not hesitate to brandish shotguns at nosy interlopers. Also, Carpenter’s new reporter, Luke Whistler, another journalist who came north looking for quieter days and a return to old-fashioned footwork, grows entangled in multiple newspaper story leads and research.
His secretive ways deepen the mystery and confirm that he too, among many, has a skeleton box agenda.
To resolve these plot convolutions Carpenter gets help from his on-again, off-again girlfriend, local deputy Darlene Bontrager, Phyllis’ daughter.
She enters the story early by receiving a cell phone message from her dying mother – a singular utterance that turns out to be a direct lead to the nun’s disappearance.
I found this device to be trite.
A major successful device used by Gruley was that of illustrating Carpenter’s personal process through an extended hockey metaphor. While some sports’ metaphors can be tedious and drab, here it advances the plot and hockey fans will find the scenes vivid and vital.
The hockey theme includes a subplot where the local team is challenging for a state championship. Many readers familiar with the plight of dismal, dying towns in industrial belt America can imagine the energy this kind of event engenders for Starvation Lake and, thus, the novel.
George Bernard Shaw suggests, “If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, teach it to dance.” Gruley has the steps down for a satisfyingly complex and twisted ending to a story driven by compelling family secrets and the unexpected face of truth.
Carolyn J. Kelly is a freelance writer residing in Manhattan.