A hockey hobby is not a bad hook for a new mystery series hero. Neither is working as editor of a small town daily newspaper in northern Michigan. The snowmobile turf, however, is already taken by Steve Hamilton and Chuck Logan working Minnesota pretty hard; and as one moves northwest, there is C. J. Box doing his Ranger Noir and then Crumley and the Missoula gang. It is hard enough to break any first novel into print, but to put down fresh tracks in the mystery field takes something special. Gruley’s hockey sidebar is almost enough, but unfortunately “Starvation Lake” comes up a power play or two short.
Gruley has the street creds; he worked his way up through urban newspapers to his current position in the Chicago bureau of the Wall Street Journal. He has picked up first class logrolling book blurbs from national crime novel heavyweights like Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos, as well as Chicago’s own Marcus Sakey and Michael Harvey and the aforementioned Box in Cheyenne. Plus he plays in the old man hockey leagues at Johnny’s Icehouse. He knows his stuff first hand.
As a crime novel hero, Augustus “Gus” Carpenter has all the traditional traits: he’s alone, beat down, living in a small apartment, and sharing weekly dinners with his mom. But he also has his hockey. Gruley opens the novel well:
“I didn’t want to be there. In a drafty hockey rink reeking of refrigerant. Late. In a two stop-light town clinging to the southeastern tip of a frozen lake in northern lower Michigan. I’d left the place years before, a failure, intending never to return. Now I was back, against my weak will, after failing miserably someplace else. By day, I was the associate editor of the Pine County Pilot, circulation 4,733, published every day but Sunday. By night I tended goal in the Midnight Hour Men’s League, surrounded by men I’d known as boys. In between I waited for something to change my life, to get me out of Starvation Lake again. That’s what goalies do. They wait.”
After this promising opening, Gruley falls into a workman-like, plot-driven narrative complete with all the stereotypical small town sights: Audrey’s Diner because “a good breakfast place is as essential to a northern Michigan town as a reliable propane supplier.” Enright’s tavern where Gus’s old girlfriend is a fixture who “only smoked on Saturday nights when she came to the bar without her useless husband to drink White Russians in her tight jeans and black turtlenecks.” The County Clerk’s office. City Council meetings in the high school gym. And, of course, the Pilot’s small office where “we had a few blue-haired ladies who freelanced now and then…and I filled a lot of the paper with wire-service copy and barely rewritten press releases.”
If hockey is the original part of “Salvation Lake,” much of the rest is derivative and clichéd. Too many chapters resort to pedestrian openings like “Back at the Pilot…” or “I stopped for a minute at the Pilot on the way to my truck.” Or “Back down in the newsroom….”
Typical small town secrets abound as Gus plods his way through solving what is the pretty ho-hum mysterious death of a former coach who turns out to have been a pedophile: the real estate tycoon who made his money in a pornography ring, the former beauty queen who writes wedding stories at the Pilot while serving as the local sex star on the side, Gus’s best friend, a hapless drinker and team winger, sexually abused in his youth, and even Gus’s father, who finds he is inadvertently investing in the dirty movie business. Nothing too original here.
Thankfully the hockey scenes are frequent, and here Gruley gets it right. Who can’t sympathize with Leo the reclusive Zamboni driver who jokes “he should cut a hole in his pick-up roof so he can drive home from Enright’s standing up.” Former star Teddy Boynton can now only check and slash because his skating legs are done. Gruley even brings to life that awful smell of hockey gear any parent of a Pee-Wee remembers.
When Gus settles into the goal for the annual town “shoot-out,” he looks up at the banner in the rink rafters: “To win the game is great, to play the game is greater, to love the game is the greatest.” The same could be said for crime novels; while many of us “love” them, not so many can “play the game” in this crowded genre. I credit Gruley for giving it a shot and applaud his hockey hook, but it will take a more developed Gus and more interesting plot to “win the game.”