Like STEIN, STONED, which I posted about a few days ago, THE HANGING TREE is set in 1999. It’s the second novel in a series, following STARVATION LAKE, which I haven’t read. I’m obsessive enough that starting with the second book in a series bothers me a little, but author Bryan Gruley does a fine job of writing this one so that a new reader doesn’t feel the least bit lost. I have some experience at that, and it’s harder than it sounds.
THE HANGING TREE is narrated by Gus Carpenter, the editor of the twice-weekly newspaper in the small town of Starvation, Michigan. Gus had gone away to the big city (in this case, Detroit) to make his fortune, but unfortunate circumstances have forced him to return to his hometown. Change is coming to Starvation, though. On the one hand, the economy has taken a downturn and many of the businesses have closed. On the other, the newspaper has been bought out by a bigger company that brings in a new managing editor, the importance of the Internet is growing, and Gus’s career in journalism isn’t turning out the way he expected at all. Added to that, as this book opens, is the apparent suicide of a distant cousin of his, a young woman with a bad reputation who left Starvation but, like Gus, eventually came back. Even though he and his cousin never really got along very well, Gus feels driven to investigate her death and find out what caused her to end her life, and, as you might expect, he uncovers a number of dangerous secrets in the process.
Oddly enough, despite all the sex, violence, and cussin’ in it, THE HANGING TREE reminded me a little of a cozy mystery in the way it goes about gradually uncovering the sinister underbelly of small-town life. It’s a very well-written book, and Gruley’s prose has the same sort of vivid elegance as James Lee Burke’s novels. The pace is a bit leisurely for my taste, but it helps that Gus Carpenter is such a likable, well-developed character. I expect that I’ll go back and read his first appearance in STARVATION LAKE and will return to this series as it continues. If you like dark, small-town mysteries, there’s an excellent chance you’ll enjoy THE HANGING TREE. I did.