Book Reviews: Bryan Gruley's 'Starvation Lake' and Jefferson Bass's 'Bones of Betrayal'

By Art Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 2009


By Bryan Gruley

Touchstone. 370 pp. Paperback, $14

Coming-of-age tales generally center on the teenage years, but Bryan Gruley's first novel charts the sudden awakening of 34-year-old Gus Carpenter to the world around him. Once an investigative reporter for the Detroit Times and vying for a Pulitzer Prize, Carpenter is now associate editor for his hometown's Pine County Pilot, "Michigan's Finest Bluegill Wrapper." If that's not humbling enough, his return to Starvation Lake brings reminders of an earlier disgrace: As goalie for the town's youth hockey team, Carpenter let through the goal that lost the state championship (for many, worse than losing a Pulitzer).

Unfortunately, Starvation Lake's collective history is also poised to nosedive. Ten years earlier, Carpenter's old hockey coach had been involved in a snowmobile accident: Vehicle and driver broke through a frozen lake and disappeared into icy depths. But the snowmobile has now been recovered -- from a different lake and sporting a bullet hole. Soon Carpenter dons his investigative cap once more.

Gruley, the Wall Street Journal's Chicago bureau chief, depicts small-town life and its newspaper persuasively, and he knows hockey, too: Play by play, he captures the passion for the game and the drive to win, both in the flashback scenes and among the 30-year-olds still clinging to the rink. Carpenter himself lives by his coach's lessons -- "You can't control what's going on in front of you, but you can control what happens in your little corner of the world" -- and the book's strongest drama comes from watching him lose even that control. As Carpenter examines old articles and photos, interviews friends and family, and plumbs his own memories, dark revelations about Starvation Lake unfold with near-tragic inevitability. Some of the suspense seems artificial -- information cumbersomely delayed -- but Gruley more than earns the Young Goodman Brown moment that Carpenter experiences near the novel's end: "In a matter of a few days, all these people I'd thought I'd known . . . had been transformed. Now I saw strangers walking around in my memory."


By Jefferson Bass

Morrow. 356 pp. $24.99

The forensic thriller meets a formidable slice of history in Jefferson Bass's impressive new novel, as Body Farm founder Bill Brockton investigates a cluster of murders in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the small town that produced the material for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than once, Brockton reflects on "how profoundly this tiny city had changed not just the nation but the entire world," and this "birthplace of the bomb" provides more than local color for the modern-day story. A top Manhattan Project scientist, Leonard Novak, is the first corpse discovered -- killed, with dark irony, by a lethal dose of radiation poisoning. A second body is that of a serviceman buried for six decades in an unmarked grave, until now an unrecognized casualty of the war.

The authors -- Jefferson Bass is the pen name of anthropologist Bill Bass and journalist Jon Jefferson -- have set their ambitions high, using a 21st-century murder investigation to delve into the ethics of the Manhattan Project, the history of World War II espionage, the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the societal mores of the 1940s, with a good portion of the story related by Novak's ex-wife, who'd worked one of the calutrons that sifted out uranium for the bombs. Brockton talks about "the peculiar sensation that World War II lived on, somehow, in this East Tennessee wrinkle in the space-time continuum," but whatever attention the authors give to that history, they also ground the events in a very chilling present: The novel starts off with a training exercise prepping for nuclear terrorism in the post-9/11 world; discussions about military research and potential espionage unfold alongside debates about civil liberties in wartime; and the trauma experienced by survivors of the atomic bombs replays itself as the medical examiner assigned to Novak's case suffers radiation poisoning himself: vomiting, burns, necrosis, amputation and the specter of an equally gruesome death ahead.

A postscript to the book admits that the authors tackled this tale "with no small amount of trepidation," but their fears were unfounded. In addition to being a riveting mystery with an intricately emotional conclusion, "Bones of Betrayal" bears witness to the past with great respect for the long shadow it casts.

Taylor, an assistant professor at George Mason University, reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post and other publications.

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