A gnarled old oak towers over Main Street about a mile from the center of the little town of Starvation Lake, Mich. From its branches hang dozens and dozens of shoes.
Gracie McBride, a 16-year-old girl with a fondness for alcohol and casual sex, started the tradition. After rolling naked in the grass with a high school football player from a neighboring town, she tied one of her hightops to one of his cleats, climbed into the tree and hung them from a bough.
Not long after that, she left town and didn't return for 20 years. Why she left, where she went, or why she has come back, no one knows. But six months after her return, she is found dead, hanging by her neck from that same gnarled oak.
Most folks dismiss it as a suicide. Her second cousin, Gus Carpenter, isn't so sure. Gus is the editor of the Pine County Pilot, which sounds impressive until you hear that he's the tiny paper's only journalist, that the chain that owns the paper is harassing him to cut costs, and that most folks in town think he's a fool.
Gus was also the protagonist of Bryan Gruley's first novel, "Starvation Lake" (2009), an Edgar Award nominee for best first novel. Gus was a big city journalist once, but he made a big mistake, got fired, came back to his hometown with his tail between his legs, and reinvented himself as the local gadfly. And nobody likes gadflies.
Lately, Gus has been investigating the finances of a wealthy benefactor who is promising to tear down the town's old hockey rink and replace it with a state-of-the-art facility. Townsfolk who worship their River Rats hockey team wish that Gus would just go away.
As the story unfolds, two investigations by Gus – Gracie's death and the financing of the rink – merge in complex and surprising ways. Gus manages to annoy everyone from his bosses to his mother as he digs for the truth.
Compared with most of today's mysteries and thrillers, "The Hanging Tree" unfolds at a slow pace, but that's a good thing. It gives the reader time to get to know Gruley's remarkable cast of characters, to explore the complex relationship between a small town and its newspaper, and to glimpse the world of amateur hockey and the people who are obsessed by it. Gruley, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and an amateur hockey player himself, knows this turf well.
As with "Starvation Lake" before it, "The Hanging Tree" is an exceptionally well-written novel by an author who has mastered the conventions of his genre. Discriminating readers will be anxiously awaiting the third book in this promising series.
"The Hanging Tree" (Touchstone Books, $15), by Bryan Gruley