Written by Bryan Gruley — A teenager goes missing and his family are in bits. Could be the summary of a number of this year’s releases, couldn’t it? Fear not, because Bleak Harbor is about to bring something new to the party.
Danny is 15 and lives in Bleak Harbor, a small town in Michigan made famous by the annual Dragonfly Festival which attracts visitors from far and wide. Danny is autistic and he loves dragonflies, tourists not so much. He will be 16 in a couple of days but events are about to unfold that will change his life for ever.
Until recently, Danny, his mother Carey and stepfather Pete lived in Chicago. Then Pete lost his job as a trader and used his payoff money to set up a business selling medical marijuana. It meant a move to Bleak Harbor, a place which has special significance for Carey. It’s where she was born and brought up, where her brother Jonah is mayor and where her mother lives, ensconced in a huge mansion, doing her best to ignore her daughter, son and grandson. Carey’s maiden name was Bleak, and her family created the town in which she now reluctantly lives.
Carey’s mother, Serenity, is in bad health and sees her imminent demise as a way to preserve her name for posterity. She has decided to cut her family out of her will, leaving her huge fortune to Bleak Harbor and other nearby towns on the proviso that they chance their names to a something with Serenity in the title. She sounds like a cross between Barbara Cartland, Miss Haversham and Mr Burns in The Simpsons – not the nicest of combinations, I think you’ll agree.
Carey is commuting each day to Chicago, where her job at a logistics firm is under pressure after she slept with the boss. She has a plan to sort that though and it involves blackmail and a payoff in the millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Pete’s medical marijuana business has hit the buffers and the dodgy dealer he turned to in the hope of getting himself out of the financial mire is now playing dirty and demanding money. Is it any wonder that Danny seems forgotten in everything else that’s going on?
Then he goes missing, followed by a ransom demand for the peculiar amount of $5,150,122.98. The note is signed by Jeremiah, and as this tale progresses it becomes clear Danny’s abductor knows an awful lot about everything that’s going on in the Peters family…
You’ll find your resolve wavering like seaweed in an ebb tide as the narrative unfolds. Every now and then there’s a eureka moment and the pieces appear to slot neatly in place – but don’t be feeling too smug about things, because in Gruley we have an author who surely has a Masters degree in the art of misdirection. As I said at the outset, this is not your common or garden hostage story.
Crime writers love a dysfunctional family and Serenity Bleak and her children come pretty high in that pecking order. Everyone has something to hide and it’s a pleasure to be along for the ride as, one after another, those dirty secrets come out in the open. In addition to the central cast, there’s a second string of characters who all have a vital part to play, from troubled police officer Katya Malone, just back at work after a personal tragedy, through Boz at Boz’s Bar, to shady computer hacker Quartz, Casey’s ex Jeffrey Bledsoe and her lech of a boss Randall Pressman. At the heart of it all is Danny, whose autism has set him apart from everyone he knows and loves for far too long.
Bryan Gruley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned author and his writing skills shine through in a book that has more twists and turns than an unravelling piece of rope. It’s tricksy, taut and tantalisingly good. Could be a late contender for my book of the year.
Thomas & Mercer
CFL Rating: 5 Stars