The Hanging Tree (Starvation Lake Series #2)

The Hanging Tree (Starvation Lake Series #2)

by Bryan Gruley


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WHEN GRACIE McBRIDE, the wild girl who had left town eighteen years earlier, is found dead in an apparent suicide shortly after her homecoming, it sends shock waves through her native Starvation Lake. Gus Carpenter, executive editor of the Pine County Pilot, sets out to solve the mystery with the help of his old flame and now girlfriend, Pine County sheriff deputy Darlene Esper. As Gus and Darlene investigate, they can’t help but question if Gracie’s troubled life really ended in suicide or if the suspicious crime-scene evidence adds up to murder.

But in such a small town it’s impossible to be an impartial investigator—Gracie was Gus’s second cousin; Darlene’s best friend; and the lover of Gus’s oldest pal, Soupy Campbell. Yet with all the bad blood between Gus and Gracie over the years, Gus is easily distracted by other problems. His employer is trying to push him out, the locals are annoyed that his stories have halted construction on a new hockey rink, and Darlene’s estranged husband has returned to reclaim his wife.

When Gus tries to retrace Gracie’s steps to discover what happened to her in the eighteen years she was away from Starvation Lake, he’s forced to return to Detroit, the scene of his humiliating past. And though he’s determined to find out what drove Gracie back home, Gus is unprepared for the terrible secrets he uncovers.

The second book in Bryan Gruley’s irresistible Starvation Lake series, The Hanging Tree is a compelling story about family and friendship, sex and violence, and the failure of love to make everything right.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416563648
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Series: Starvation Lake Series , #2
Edition description: Original
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 455,431
Product dimensions: 8.62(w) x 11.04(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Bryan Gruley is reporter at large for Bloomberg News and the former Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal. He has won the Anthony, Barry, and Strand Awards and was nominated for an Edgar Award for best first novel. He lives with his wife in Chicago. Visit

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Hanging Tree includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Bryan Gruley. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

For Discussion

1. The first line of the book is, “I have learned that you can be too grateful for love.” Do you think this statement refers to the relationship between Gus and Darlene, or is the author highlighting a larger theme? Think about the various relationships in the novel in light of this sentence. Does it change your perspective on them, or on the book as a whole?

2. Gus has proven himself to be a reporter of persistence and talent. Is Gus wasting that talent by staying in Starvation Lake? Do you think he is hiding in Starvation Lake, still ashamed of what he did at the Detroit Times? Or are his reasons for living there—his mother, Darlene, his history with the town—genuine? Do you think he aspires to work for a big paper again?

3. Many people in Starvation Lake are annoyed by Gus’s negative stories about the new hockey rink. Why does the new rink mean so much to the town? How do the prospective new rink and the existing old one function as symbols for Starvation Lake?

4. Gus and Gracie had a very troubled relationship, with tensions that seem to go beyond normal “sibling rivalry” (or, in their case, cousin rivalry). Do you think Gus’s appraisal of Gracie’s character is fair? How does his understanding change of who she was? Is it easier, or more appealing, to forgive someone who is dead?

5. Gus’s mother withholds a lot of information about Gracie that could potentially help the investigation. If she weren’t in a declining mental state, would she have let things slip at all? Or does she hide behind her forgetfulness as an excuse to withhold information at will? How would Gus’s investigation have changed if she had kept her silence?

6. Is Gracie’s slide into prostitution understandable? Do women truly have no other option at times or, as Trixie says, do they enjoy playing that role on a certain level? If prostitution were legalized and controlled, do you think stories like Gracie’s would be less likely?

7. Gracie sacrifices her life for her child. Given Gracie’s limited resources and options, do you agree this was the best way for her to help her son, or could it prove to be intensely damaging to him in the long run?

8. Gus tells Philo, “Just like hockey. It’s all about two-on-ones.” There are many “two-on-one” relationships throughout The Hanging Tree. Besides that of Gus-Darlene-Jason, can you think of any other love triangles? Or triangles that involve nonromantic relationships? Do you think these triangles were intentional on Gruley’s part?

9. Felicia Haskell is, at first, a minor character, but she is central to Gracie’s death and the unfolding of the plot. Is she a sympathetic character, forced to make difficult decisions, or a selfish manipulator?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Gruley shared in a Pulitzer Prize for the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the September 11 attacks. You can read some of his articles online at his website, Pick a piece to read together and note the differences in his style as a journalist and as a fiction writer.

2. Hockey, and the position of goalie in particular, are important to the storyline of The Hanging Tree. Watch some of a hockey game on TV or online (or attend a local hockey game!) and try to imagine it from a goalie’s point of view.

3. The Hanging Tree takes place in 1999, before Internet news had become popular. Philo, Gus’s boss at the Pilot, expresses a belief that it’s the wave of the future for reporters. Discuss among the group where and how you get your news, and how that has changed in the past ten years.

A Conversation with Bryan Gruley

Tell us about the process of plotting a mystery novel. Do you have the story mapped out before you sit down to write, or do you discover it along with your characters?

So far, I’m not much of an advance plotter. I know where the story begins and I have a vague idea of how it ends. Then I start writing and, yes, I discover the story along with my characters. As I go, I jot notes to myself about story arcs I need to follow through on and loose ends I have to tie up, and these become a sort of rough, moving outline for what’s to come in the next few scenes.

How is writing a sequel different from writing a debut novel? Does your writing process change at all?

Writing my first novel was hard because I had no idea how to go about writing a novel. Writing the sequel was hard because I had no idea how to go about writing a sequel.

I don’t mean to be glib. In a sequel, you have to be mindful both of readers who have not read your previous book and readers who have. You have to give the former enough backstory to appreciate the setting and characters without giving so much that you either bore repeat readers or reveal so much of the first book that new readers won’t go back and give it a try.

At least for me, another challenge on the sequel was quieting the echoes of reviewers, bloggers, readers, and others who had opined about my writing. Writing my debut, all I had to worry about were my own instincts and the suggestions of the few friends who read the manuscript. This time around, it was impossible at times not to recall the critics, professional or not, who’d complained about the hockey or the dialogue or the prologue or the way my hair was done in the author photo. It made for some second-guessing, but I tried to remind myself what my friend, the novelist John Galligan, told me: Write what’s in your heart.

When you first conceived of this series, how did you decide which point of view to tell the story from? Did you ever consider using a character other than Gus to narrate, or telling the story from a third-person perspective?

In truth, I didn’t conceive of a series; I just wrote one story, Starvation Lake, and my friends at Touchstone told me it would be a series. I never gave serious thought to telling the story in anything but the first person. It just felt natural, and it really helped me to get to know at least one character, Augustus

Carpenter. I sometimes feel envious reading stories told in third-person omniscient, because the narrator can honestly know things that the main character cannot know. I do not have that luxury with Gus, of course, but for now at least, I feel that it’s his voice more than anything that connects with certain readers.

While you don’t write from a female perspective, there are several strong female characters at the heart of The Hanging Tree (particularly Gracie, Felicia, Darlene, and Michele). Do any of the women in your life inform your female characters?

Absolutely. While none of these fictional characters are modeled on particular women in my life, I assume that virtually every girl or woman I’ve ever known has influenced the way in which I’ve drawn them—and the way Gus perceives them. The latter is most important because it tells us as much about Gus as it does about them.

Felicia and Laird Haskell put a lot of pressure on Taylor. Throughout the novel, Gus describes the dashed dreams of parents who believed that their sons were bound for the NHL. Do you think that this kind of pressure from parents is more intense in small towns like Starvation Lake?

I doubt it. Remember that the Haskells originally hail from the Detroit suburbs. The pressure there—and in Chicago, Toronto, Minneapolis, Montreal, Boston, and other hockey towns—can be intense. The best parents understand that the odds of their kid playing pro hockey are infinitesimal. They instead encourage a love of the game that the kid can embrace for the rest of his or her life.

Philo’s belief in the potential of the Web to change journalism is pivotal to the story. You have experienced the changes affecting journalism firsthand. Do you think that the essential role of reporters has shifted in the information age, or is their basic purpose and process the same? Are you optimistic about the future for newspapers in America?

The reporter’s missions is as ever: tell people things they didn’t know five seconds ago, and tell them stories that make them think, laugh, debate, cry, act. Today, a young reporter is likely to be as adept with a video camera as she is with a pen and notebook, and he’s likely to deliver information in shorter, faster blasts than before. But the essentials remain unchanged: What’s new? What’s interesting? How does it affect me and my world?

I’m not optimistic about the future for print newspapers, per se, because the business model is broken beyond repair. But the demand for news, compelling tales, and insightful analysis in an increasingly connected, increasingly complex world is greater than ever. The challenge is finding ways to deliver that material in ways that people will actually pay for it.

Tell us about your plans for Gus and Starvation Lake. Will the series continue? Any thoughts on how many books there might be?

At least one more, according to the folks at Touchstone. I can envision more beyond that, because I enjoy the characters so much. I’m dying to know what will happen to Soupy and Bea and Darlene and the River Rats. The only way to find out is to sit down and write it.

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The Hanging Tree 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This a follow-up book to "Starvation Lake". It picks up the story right away within the first few pages. This author is great. I only wish there would be more books by him. You don't have to read the fist book, but I would advise it just so you are familiar with the characters and the story line. Read and enjoy.
magnumpigg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Though written well, not as good as "Starvation Lake." Plot lags at times and the reason for the hanging is too odd to accept.
FMRox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Augustus "Gus" Carpenter, tiny North Michigan town local newspaper editor investigates the apparent hanging suicide of local prodigal daughter. Not only is she his second cousin, but also his girlfriend's best friend and his best friend's girlfriend, so of course everyone's suspicious she didn't really hang herself. With no true suicide note he begins a local investigation the leads him back to his not so distant past in Detroit, Michigan.This is the second in the series by Gruley and very good. It seems he fixed the problems found in the earlier book. It interesting how he managed to create another suspicious death in such a small fictitious town like Starvation Lake. The characters are well developed but still leave much potential for future series. The plot is great with a good twist at the end. Although I knew who did it about mid way, I still didn't know the motive and the plot developed this quite nicely.
SamSattler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As "The Hanging Tree," book two in Bryan Gruley's Starvation Lake series, opens, not much has changed for small town reporter Gus Carpenter. He is still reporting local politics, sports and deaths for his twice-a-week newspaper and playing in a midnight hockey league at the local rink. When, in book one of the series, he returned to Starvation Lake after disgracing himself in Detroit, Gus moved in with his mother - he still lives there. And to complete the circle of his life, Gus is romantically involved again with Darlene, a woman he has loved since they both were children and she was his cousin Gracie's best friend. Gus Carpenter might work for a smalltime newspaper in remote northern Michigan, but he still considers himself a good investigative journalist. Sensing that something is not right about the new hockey rink being donated to Starvation Lake, he decides to look into the donor's finances. In the process, he manages to infuriate the millionaire benefactor and most of the paper's readers and advertisers. That is enough to make his life in hockey-crazy Starvation Lake miserable, but when his cousin is found hanging from the town's "shoe tree," an apparent suicide, things will get much worse for Gus. His instincts tell him that Gracie's death is a case of murder, not suicide, and Gus vows to learn the truth about what happened on the night she died. His investigation brings him back to Detroit where he digs into the life Gracie lived in the city before she returned to Starvation Lake only to be seen there, by those who thought they knew her best, as little more than a failure and a drunk. Because "The Hanging Tree" is a character-driven story with an intricate backstory, readers who begin the Starvation Lake series here will not short-change themselves. The book is filled with well developed, but less than perfect, characters that move the story along at a nice pace but Gruley offers more. Along the way, he gives his readers a taste of what life might be like in those little towns up north where men in their thirties and forties schedule their lives around the games they play in midnight hockey leagues. Even non-hockey fans (like me) will appreciate Gruley's game descriptions and insights into the minds of men willing to risk major injury on the ice at the advanced age of 40 or so. My only quarrel with the book is its ending, a solution to its central mystery I found to be more confusing than convincing. Perhaps, female readers will better understand the ending, but it did not work well for me. Rated at: 4.0
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really love the narration in this series. The Hanging Tree is a solid story on its own, but it is even better if you've read Starvation Lake.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SandyIL More than 1 year ago
A G R E A T read.
SarahO More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, "Starvation Lake." The author clearly knows journalism and hockey, and he wrote an engrossing mystery with lots of local color and engaging characters. This book is the second in a planned series, and although the characters are mainly the same and still interesting, the story was not quite as compelling as the first book. I am still interested to see where Gruley goes, though, so I will be back if there is a third book. Recommended, especially for those who liked the first book.
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Justsooze More than 1 year ago
In "The Hanging Tree", author Bryan Gruley delves deeper into the past and present lives of the citizens of Starvation Lake. As this second book in the series opens, Gus Carpenter is still editor of the Pine County Pilot, but his stories concerning the gift of a new hockey rink have him on the wrong side of the paper's owner as well as many of the townspeople. Then Gracie McBride, his second cousin, is found hanging from a tree, an apparent suicide and yet things don't quite seem right to Gus. As he digs into Gracie's past, both in Starvation Lake and in Detroit, he must confront not only his own troubled relationship with Gracie, but the life she kept hidden from everyone. This is a dark, complex and ultimately satisfying read."
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LovesToReadBW More than 1 year ago
The Hanging Tree - A Starvation Lake Mystery September 13, 2010 Bryan Gruley I really enjoyed The Hanging Tree. Reminded me of a tree I saw when I was visiting Utah. Having a lot of info about hockey in the book was something that I had never read very much about before and was new and different. I enjoyed the book even more since I didn't figure out who did what until I read it near the end of the book. I will now go back and read Bryan Gruley's other book Starvation Lake.
Suspensemag More than 1 year ago
From the moment Gracie McBride tied her pretty, pink sneaker to that of her boyfriend's black, football cleat and hung the mismatched pair over the branch of an old, oak tree, the majority of other teens from the small town of Starvation Lake, Michigan, adopted her action. Meant as a sign of childhood love, lust, lost virginity or even freedom, The Shoe Tree was born. Now, twenty years later, The Shoe Tree is popular once again, but not for the hundreds of shoes adorning its sweeping branches. This time, the old tree receives attention for the body of Gracie McBride hanging amongst the hundreds of time-worn tokens. Gus Carpenter, executive editor of the Pine County Pilot, sets out to discover the events leading to Gracie's death, for it soon becomes clear it was no suicide. However, one curse of living in such a small town is the toil of never running an impartial investigation. Gracie was Gus's second cousin and best friend to his now girlfriend and police Deputy, Darlene Esper. With the residents of Starvation Lake unhappy with Gus for halting construction of a new hockey ring with his scathing article written for the paper, he is met with uncooperative forces. However, as he delves deeper into tracing the steps leading the Gracie's death, Gus is unprepared for the many horrible secrets he uncovers. Full of mystery, romance, intrigue and violence, "The Hanging Tree" is a must read for any fan of suspense! Reviewed by Dawn Hullender for Suspense Magazine
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