The Hnaging Tree by Brian Gruley

The Hanging Tree

by Bryan Gruley

Published by Touchstone

336 pages, 2010







Home Ice Advantage

Reviewed by Brendan M. Leonard

I grew up in small-town northeastern Ohio, which shares many similarities with the small-town Michigan of Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake (2009). Those similarities ran deep enough that Gruley’s first novel, nominated for an Edgar Award this year, resonated with me. In addition to being a son of the fabled land that gave the world rock ’n’ roll (as well as Drew Carey, Devo and Chrissie Hynde), I’m also the son of a newspaperman and spent much of my youth in newsrooms. Gruley, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, evoked in his debut novel that twilight time in the late 1990s, before the Internet gutted the newspaper industry but after everyone knew it was only a matter of time for the ink-stained wretches, with the same simple, memorable prose that he used to describe daily life in a post-industrial town.

Lest you think that my affection for Starvation Lake has simply to do with my father and my love-hate relationship with Ohio, or that Gruley wrote a polemic condemning all the things I just name-checked in the last paragraph, let me set you straight: He’s also a wonderful new writer capable of crafting a dark, engaging mystery. I read Starvation Lake in about two days, then rooted for it to win the Edgar Award for Best First Novel (which it did not) and afterward looked forward to the further adventures of disgraced Detroit journo turned small-town editor Augustus “Gus” Carpenter.

Gus, along with many of the other major characters from Starvation Lake, returns in Gruley’s new novel, The Hanging Tree. This book picks their story up in February 1999. Gus is still the editor of the Pine County Pilot, although that paper has been bought out by a multimedia conglomerate, meaning Gus now has to answer to Philo Beech, an ambitious young managing editor. Gus is also still playing hockey and stirring up trouble with his editorial columns. Which is why the residents of Starvation Lake -- who haven’t yet gotten around to forgiving him for sins from his hockey-playing past (surprise, surprise) -- aren’t looking too kindly on Gus lately. They blame him for stalling construction of a new hockey rink, after one of his columns suggested that Laird Haskell, the man behind that venture, might not have the money to build it. Those same residents still believe that Starvation Lake is just one state hockey victory away from an economic comeback.

Then one day the town’s “bad girl,” Gracie McBride, is found hanging from a town landmark. It appears to be suicide. Gracie’s best friend and Gus’ now-lover, Darlene Esper, thinks otherwise. So does Gus’ mom, who practically raised Gracie. On top of all that, Gracie was Gus’ cousin. In case you haven’t already figured this out, Gus Carpenter doesn’t really have a choice: he’s going to be looking into Gracie’s death.

Like Gruley’s first novel, this new book finds our hero delving into the murky past of a town resident and discovering a vast conspiracy that goes all ... the ... way... to ... the ... top. Unfortunately, those aren’t the only two things that The Hanging Tree shares with Starvation Lake, and unlike its predecessor, I found Gruley’s second novel to be a disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong, The Hanging Tree isn’t a bad work. I liked spending time with Gruley’s characters, and I very much appreciated the author’s choice of a time setting. In 1999, the Internet hadn’t yet transformed journalism, but was on its way to doing so. I’m someone who believes that modern fiction rooted in classic investigative reporting methodology (meaning that a dogged newsie goes it alone against not only deadlines but vicious owners who care about nothing except the bottom line) is inherently flawed. Fortunately, Gruley doesn’t try and create The Last Journalism Novel (which might have been similar to the recent film adaptation of State of Play -- The Last Journalism Movie). Instead, he acknowledges the Internet in his story’s timeframe head-on. I don’t want to spoil The Hanging Tree’s ending for you, but I can say that the way Gruley puts a modern spin on the traditional “stop the presses” cliché brought a smile to my face.

I think, too, that Gruley has become a better fiction-writer since he completed Starvation Lake. His prose is still simple, his attention to detail still excellent. Lines such as “She was standing behind the front counter wearing a red cardigan with the shapes of reindeer knitted into it,” or “The air tasted of mustard and pickled eggs,” or “Three tall plastic buckets embossed with Miller Lite logos sat along the back wall” all instantly conjure up images in your mind. They’re the kind of descriptions that are specific and universal at the same time; they remind you of places from your youth, even if you’ve grown up in a city and never been to a place like Starvation Lake.

One of my favorite passages will resonate especially with readers who grew up in cities. Here’s Gruley’s description of a local pizza place:

You had to be hungry to eat at Riccardo’s Pizza, and not because the portions were especially large. The pizza tasted as if grease had been ladled on instead of sauce. The stromboli should have been served with a chisel and a hammer. The mozzarella sticks lay in your belly. But it was cheap.

Gruley is much better, too, when it comes to his detailed passages about hockey. Now, I am no hockey fan (I’m not really a sports fan at all, save for a cultural affection toward baseball -- and maybe cricket), and although I can understand Gruley’s passion for the sport, I dreaded hearing about it a second time around. However, I found myself surprised and moved by the hockey sections of The Hanging Tree, in particular this passage in which Gus attends a sold-out youth hockey match:

From up in the bleachers, hockey looks like a game of savage grace and swift beauty, which it is, but only up close can you see how hunger and poise and guile and anger can make a player who lacks wheels and hands the best player on the ice at any given moment, sometimes the moment that decides a game. Only up close can you see the difference between someone who knows how to play ice hockey and someone who is a genuine hockey player ...

Later in that same section, Gus watches star goaltender Taylor Haskell (the son of businessman Laird Haskell), and Gruley uses Gus’ inner thoughts on goaltending as a wonderful little metaphor for who his protagonist has become since the last book. It’s the kind of passage that illustrates that the best crime fiction loses something in cinematic adaptation:

... I thought I’d quit tending goal because I was tired of waiting around for things to happen. Which is what goalies do, a lot of the time. But now, as the referee dropped the puck and I followed it between one center’s skates to a winger’s stick blade and off the high glass and outside the blue line where the River Rat center gave chase against a Marquette defenseman, I thought maybe I had stopped because I no longer wanted to feel alone.

In the dressing room, in the hockey shop, in the tavern, the goalie is one of the boys. On the ice he is stranded, lost inside his bloated pads, hiding his face behind a mask. When he gives up a goal his teammates figure he should have stopped, he is alone, circling his crease, dousing himself from his water bottle, wishing he had another chance at the shot he was sure he had with the toe of his skate until it hit someone’s elbow and deflected just inside the post.

He knows that the other guys are muttering about the pylon or sieve or funnel between the pipes. He knows that even if he had a chance to explain -- the puck took a funny hop, the defenseman left a guy uncovered -- he would not be understood. Because nobody sees the game as a goalie does: as a low, flat horizontal puzzle of bodies and blind spots and caroms that is constantly being assembled and disassembled on his left, his right, behind him, his left again, in front of him, beneath him, in front of him, beneath him, down low, up high. All of which he feels responsible for trying to control. Even if he isn’t, really. Even if it’s ultimately impossible for control, or even make sense of.

Not terribly unlike my day job. Or my life.

As that illustrates, Gruley has become much better at evoking his characters’ inner lives than he was in his first novel. The Hanging Tree is once more told in the first-person, and Gruley puts us into Gus’ head. However, Gus is not the same man we met in Starvation Lake -- he’s in love, sure, but he’s also more frustrated and bitter, as illustrated in this short passage:

But eventually came the creeping suspicion that my apparent satisfaction with Soupy’s lot was a symptom of my own complacency, a sign that I too was now willing to settle for a day-to-day existence in Starvation, with none of the visions I once carried around with the things I could find out and write down.

Unfortunately, the basic plot of The Hanging Tree leaves much to be desired. The way it plays out is remarkably similar to what we saw in Starvation Lake. It’s the kind of story that director Shane Black made fun of in his 2005 crime/comedy film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (I kept hearing Val Kilmer’s exhortation, “Killed herself. There, I solved your case for you. Killed herself,” through much of this novel.) Furthermore, for all of Gruley’s attention to detail when it comes to small-town life and investigative journalism, he takes Gus on some wild and unbelievable flights of crime-fiction fancy. The dark secret behind the death of Gracie McBride, like the events that kicked off Starvation Lake, involves sex and men who pay for it. And you can see all of that coming in The Hanging Tree. I accepted the stretched credibility of his first story, but I had trouble buying more of it as The Hanging Tree got darker and sillier. Without giving too much away, let me just say this: Polish-Canadian mobsters and rubber hoses. Oh, boy. If Gruley wanted to take us on a second journey through this type of subject matter, I think he should have provided an afterword detailing the actual events that inspired his tale.

Despite my other problems with The Hanging Tree, I found the last 40 pages or so to be remarkably moving. The ending crept up on me, and I thought about it for a few days afterward, which improved my opinion of the overall work. Yes, I was disappointed that this new book wasn’t as good as Starvation Lake, but that was a first novel with new characters. The challenge for any mystery series is to deliver “the same, but different” in each new installment. Here, Gruley delivers too much that’s similar when it comes to plot, but his writing has improved enough that I’m torn as to whether or not to recommend The Hanging Tree. This novel’s silly elements are really, really silly -- but the good parts are so good that they make up for the rest.

Like me, you’ll probably feel satisfied after reading Bryan Gruley’s new novel. Just try not to think of Val Kilmer along the way. | September 2010

Brendan M. Leonard lives in New York City. He’s a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet and has also published work in