Monthly Archives: February 2011

Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley

Starvation Lake, Bryan Gruley’s debut novel that was nominated for just about every award in the mystery field, is every bit as good as advertised.

The protagonist Gus Carpenter, editor of the Pine County Pilot–circulation 4,733–doesn’t expect he’ll face the controversies he did during his stay at the Detroit Times, where he took a fall that continues to haunt him. The Pilot, based in his hometown of Starvation Lake, is more apt to run an article on a guy who believes in Bigfoot than hard-hitting news. But when pieces of a snowmobile that went down with Gus’ former hockey coach years ago washes up on the shore of a different lake from where the coach was believed to have drowned, Gus finds himself investigating the death. Was it murder? Gus, who was goalie for the team the coach led to the losing end of the state championship finals, discovers the coach had a secret so terrible that people who knew it likely wanted him dead. Gus is forced to confront his own fiends and former teammates to find out who wanted the coach’s secret buried—not just then, but still today.

Gruley, who is the Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, makes Gus a convincing journalist and adds layers of intrigue to the story that keep the pages turning. In the end, Gus is an investigative hero in the mold of Woodward or Bernstein, refusing to bend to higher powers that threaten to silence him if he won’t stop digging. His daring determination to learn the truth provides an uplifting end to a story set in a cold, blue-collar town that’s dying in more ways than one. Hockey fans will love this book, but as evidenced from all the awards it’s garnered, hockey is not the main reason readers are skating into Starvation Lake to find out who iced who.

Prologue for Saintly Remains

PROLOGUE

The answer was not in the pattern. The answer was in the exception.

Keri Schoening, age sixteen, dead in a Columbine-style massacre, was that exception. The non-jock, the non-bully, the sweet, loving young woman who answered “yes” when asked if she believed in Jesus, was the only one of the five dead students who didn’t fit the pattern.

So no one asked, what if she was the reason for the massacre?

I’m Nick Bertetto. I’m a freelance investigative reporter, and I didn’t ask the question, either. Not that I was looking for the answer. It wasn’t my story, not until five months later. And even then, I was asking a different question when I stumbled upon the answer.

The shootings occurred one gray Indiana afternoon on January 23 at West Jasper High School, the alma mater of my wife, Joan. Two students returned to school after lunch, shot five students, then shot themselves. None of the victims survived.

It was heartbreaking. The school closed for the rest of the semester. Students were transferred to Jasper High, the other community high school in town. Though there had been rumors the killings were the work of a Satanic cult, the police found no evidence of it, other than a cryptic verse of no known origin left on the wall of the library:

“When night is at its lowest ebb,

And Vict’ry’s sung from heav’nly tower,

Then evil spins its strongest web,

And Satan has his finest hour.”

The authorities believed that the two students who did the shootings sought revenge on athletes who had bullied them. It was said that, for years, the slain had inflicted misery on the shooters and their friends—and that, as in Columbine, the school had ignored what the popular jocks had been doing.

That’s what the police and the media concluded. Keri Schoening, huddled under a table in the library with other students, had been an afterthought. The wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time.

We took the news of the massacre hard, especially Joan. Keri had been the daughter of one of her good friends from high school. Susan Schoening and Joan were close enough that when we were in Jasper, our families always got together. Keri had treated our daughter, Stephanie, like a little sister and even babysat her on occasion. Steph, like all kids Keri came in contact with, really liked her. We’d had eggnog at the Schoening’s house after Midnight Mass on Christmas morning. A month later, Joan and I went to Jasper for the funeral.

Not one of us asked, what if Keri’s death was not the exception?

Because we saw the pattern instead, the evil that had been in the boys lived on unnoticed. It lay low for a short while, but that time was very short. Just five months later, it resurfaced.