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[2010 Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel By An American Author—see reviews of other 2010 Edgar noms here.]

Author: Bryan Gruley

Touchstone, 2009

Filed under: Mystery

When pieces of a snowmobile wash up on the shores of Starvation Lake—near the small town of the same name—a ten-year-old accident involving the town’s famed hockey coach is reconsidered, and the history of Starvation Lake is drastically rewritten.

Gruley does best at character work; he captures the feeling of life in a small town and he sets up layers of history that blend together well. He’s not so good at plotting: the first half of Starvation plods along sedately, and Gruley doesn’t unleash any plot twists until the final 50 pages, when he dumps them all in your lap.

But while Starvation is lopsided plot-wise, it’s ultimately a satisfying mystery.

Our hero is Gus Carpenter, the editor of the Starvation Lake Pilot (the town’s daily newspaper) and a former big-city reporter. Gus grew up in Starvation Lake and came home with his tail between his legs after he was forced to resign from his job at the Detroit Times.

Gruley’s background as a newspaper editor shows up in both the authentic feel of the job, and the competent, polished prose he delivers. Gus is fun to follow, slightly spiritless but always a well-drawn newspaperman.

The lives of several other Starvation Lake natives have followed a similar pattern to Gus’s: they were good at something, they went out and gave it a shot in the real world, they failed, and they came back home. Despite that slight repetition, Gruley’s talents with character and voice make the histories of those characters—and how those histories intersect with the present day and with the mystery—the best part of the novel.

Gruley also fleshes out the town’s obsession with hockey. Gus plays goalie, as he has for nearly thirty years. The players all have nicknames like Soupy and Loob and Trap, they all grew up together, and they have a rich history both with each other and with the famous Coach Blackburn. When Coach’s secrets start coming to light, that emotional foundation pays off.

As for the plot itself, though, there’s something to be desired. Halfway through, Gus still hasn’t discovered a thing. Coach’s snowmobile washed up on the shore of the wrong lake (it was thought he fell through the ice on Walleye Lake, nearby), and foul play is suspected.

The problem is that, as mystery readers, we’re expecting foul play. Gruley takes nearly 200 of the novel’s 370 pages to get us there. To a certain extent, this is realistic—Gus has to butt heads with the sheriff to get the smallest morsels of information from the police—but it’s also not very compelling.

When you have an inkling of what happened (long before Gus does), that’s pretty much what happened—you won’t be surprised until at least the 300th page. To stretch out a mostly linear plot, Gruley painstakingly parcels out one tiny clue at a time, even though they all point in the same direction. Or he pulls this trick where somebody is just about to tell Gus something and then they don’t, like this end of a scene (Gus, speaking first, is talking to a deputy about the case):

“No record of what?”

“You can’t print this, Gus.”

“Darlene, I’m not going to print what Boynton was asking you.”

“He—darn it, hang on.” I heard a knocking on her door. She covered the phone. I waited. She came back on. “I have to go.”

“What did he ask about?”

Now I got the dial tone.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen on every page, but it does happen often enough that it starts to feel cheap.

Toward the very end, Gruley does give us a bunch of plot twists all in a row, and it turns out the problem wasn’t plotting but pacing. That combination of great characters and unbalanced plot makes this an odd mystery to read, but probably worth the time if you don’t mind a slow burn for a few hundred pages.

Gruley’s prose is crisp and smooth, but rarely beautiful. He gets into some of the most interesting territory with Gus’s motivation; Gus wants to get a scoop, solve the case, and help out his old friends—but he can’t do all three at once. Gruley also shoehorns in Gus’s legal trouble with the Detroit Times, which makes for a fairly uninteresting subplot.

Starvation isn’t a stylistic masterpiece, it isn’t a mind-bending puzzle, and it isn’t a novel rooted in gruesomeness. It’s mostly a small-town crime story, with a dash of adult themes and a penchant for hockey and flashbacks. Twin Peaks but not as weird, Fargo but not as funny. If you like this kind of mystery, you probably know who you are.

Similar books: Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane, for the small-community-rocked-by-crime feel. Also, the Fletch series, by Gregory Mcdonald (including the book that inspired the Chevy Chase role), is a pretty good one for reporters solving crimes.

Edgar impact: So far, Best First Novel is a soft category. As of now, it’s between The Weight of Silence and Starvation Lake. Starvation has a better ending and a better overall plot, but Silence delivers more twists and turns—and more suspense—along the way. If no clearer front-runner emerges from the category’s last couple entries, this’ll be a hard event to handicap.