"The Skeleton Box: A Starvation Lake Mystery," by Bryan Gruley (Touchstone Books)
The mythical village of Starvation Lake, Mich., is an authentic realm of piney woods, deadman's curves, working-class bars, lakefront cottages, friendly neighbors, town drunks, rampant gossip and small-town cops where almost everyone is obsessed with the fate of a junior hockey team called The River Rats.
Bryan Gruley introduced us to the place in his first novel, "Starvation Lake" (2009), which won the Anthony, Barry and Strand Awards, and then revisited it in his second novel, "The Hanging Tree" (2010). But "The Skeleton Box," the third in a series featuring the adventures of Gus Carpenter, editor of the town's little newspaper, The Pine County Pilot, is his best work.
The writing is tighter and more vivid. The characters are so real you could almost reach out and shake their hands. And the setting is so well-drawn, you'll swear you've been served a brewski by Gus' pal Soupy at Enwright's Pub, sat in the stands to cheer for The River Rats and taken a dip in the deep, cold lake.
Best of all, the plot is emotionally wrenching and filled with more twists and turns than the little town's winding, often snow-choked roads.
As the tale opens, the townspeople are in a panic about a series of house break-ins. Gus' paper has dubbed them the "Bingo Night Robberies" because on each weekly game night, someone ransacks the empty home of an elderly resident. The weird part? The burglar never takes anything.
Sheriff Dingus Aho, who is under intense pressure to solve the crimes, is baffled, and his treacherous underling has jumped at the chance to mount a campaign for his boss' job.
Things get worse when the burglar hits the home of Gus' mother, Bea, who unexpectedly skipped bingo to spend the evening chatting with her best friend, Phyllis. In the commotion, Phyllis, the mother of Gus' ex-girlfriend Darlene, ends up dead.
With Darlene grieving, and with one of Gus' friends suddenly named as a suspect, the editor stops merely covering the crime and starts investigating it. But the mystery is only one of Gus' problems. He's still longing for his ex, constantly fighting with his corporate overlords in a last-ditch effort to keep the Pilot afloat and helping to coach the underdog River Rats in their quixotic quest for the state junior hockey championship.
As Gus soon discovers, the mystery has its roots in the long-ago disappearance of a Roman Catholic nun, a cover-up by the Roman Catholic diocese and a dark secret his mother has kept from him all her life.
Gruley says the novel was inspired by a true story: the disappearance of Sister Mary Jane Janina in Isadore, Mich., in 1907.