July 28 2010 12:00 AM

Bryan Gruley returns to his Michigan roots in ’The Hanging Tree’


Two words are in the back of the mind of every author after the debut novel is published: sophomore slump.

At a book signing and reading last year at Schuler Books & Music in Okemos, mystery author Bryan Gruley was asked by a former co-worker from The Detroit News if the thought ever crossed his mind that he had only one book in him.

“He asked that question very innocently,” Gruley said, “but that very afternoon I had turned in the manuscript for my second book to my editor. We both knew it sucked.”

Gruley who won the prestigious Strand Magazine Critics Award for mystery writing and was nominated for the Edgar Award for his first book “Starvation Lake” did what he had to do: He threw out the second manuscript and started over.

“I had my sophomore slump,” he said, “but you won’t get to see it.”

For readers, that was a great decision. Gruley’s second book, “The Hanging Tree,” is a masterpiece of detective fiction, with the right amount of blind alleys that leave the outcome always in doubt. The author, who is the Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, has topped his first book while capturing the essence of a hockey-crazy Michigan small town.

Gruley retained his “Starvation Lake” protagonist, Gus Carpenter, a small town newspaper editor and now amateur detective, who returned to his hometown to regroup after a major league scandal at his former news job.

Gruley said what was missing in the discarded manuscript was “heart,” and he set out to find it by rereading his own book and then two books by noted mystery writer Dennis Lehane (“Gone, Baby, Gone,” “A Drink Before The War”). Gruley, who is also a dedicated amateur hockey player, d i s c o v e r e d from his reading that he had forgotten to tell stories.

In his “real” second book he details the tragic story of Carpenter’s second cousin, Gracie, a hometown girl who leaves for the big city, returns home 20 years later and then, six months later, ends up hanging from a tree. Was it suicide, or was it murder? For Carpenter, who was like a brother to Gracie during high school, solving the mystery becomes a personal mission.

Along with the dramatic tension, Carpenter’s love life is cranked up a bit in this second book, His rekindled relationship with his high school sweetheart, Darlene, also a deputy sheriff, is complicated when her estranged husband, a hockey nemesis of Carpenter, shows up to reclaim his wife.

This isn’t the only new development in Carpenter’s life: A newspaper story he wrote about a proposed new hockey rink in Starvation Lake divides the town and threatens his job.

Although the hockey action takes something of a back seat in his second novel, there’s enough on-ice and off-ice chicanery (and an appearance by the Zamboni) to satiate hardcore fans. But the unraveling of Gracie’s life and her untimely death on the community’s hanging tree is center ice.

Gruley said an actual “Hanging Tree” — covered with twisted shoes, boots and tennis shoes — on U.S. 131 near Kalkaska was the inspiration for the story. He first saw the tree while on assignment for The Wall Street Journal.

Although Carpenter does take one detour downstate to piece together Gracie’s former life, Gruley deftly creates a sense of place of the northern Michigan he knows and loves. Not only does Gruley’s father still have a cottage in the region, but early in his newspaper career Gruley worked at an Antrim County Weekly newspaper.

Starvation Lake may be a fictitious place, but it fits the description of hundreds of towns and cities in northern Michigan. And when Gruley focuses on the people who inhabit Starvation Lake he is at his best. He puts you in a seat at the local diner right alongside all the characters who inhabit it.

The book tour for his new book starts next week, and Gruley is looking forward to it: “I love good questions and I love talking about the book.”

Gruley is an accomplished writer both in his day job and in his new fiction career. He led a team of reporters on a post-Sept. 11 Wall Street Journal feature that won a Pulitzer Prize in the breaking news category. His 2003 feature, "War Stories," was an alternate finalist for the feature writing Pulitzer.

Gruley won’t be in the Lansing area for awhile, but he is sharing a panel with two other “Northern Noir” writers — Steve Hamilton (“A Cold Day in Paradise”) and William Kent Krueger (“Heaven’s Keep”) — at the Kerrytown BookFest in Ann Arbor on Sept. 12.

’The Hanging Tree’ by Bryan Gruley (Simon & Schuster) In stores Tuesday, Aug. 3 www.bryangruley.com www.thehangingtree.com