By Ben Martin
Special to Magazine
September 13, 2012
THE SKELETON BOX
By Bryan Gruley
Touchstone Books, $25; 322 pp.
By Mark Henshaw
Touchstone Books, $24.99; 327 pp.
Mysteries and thrillers make good summer reading. Here are two of the best for this year.
Small towns are ingrown toenails: too many people have known each other too well and too long and so the keeping of secrets becomes a collective endeavor. Or as Bryan Gruley describes Starvation Lake in northern Michigan, “a place that could feel as crowded as New York City, minus the convenience of anonymity.”
The town’s darkest secret concerns the disappearance and presumed murder of a young nun, Sister Mary Cordelia, in the mid-1940s. Now, there is a new murder victim, one of her students from that long-ago time.
For several weeks, someone has been breaking into the houses of elderly residents while they are out for the weekly bingo night at St. Valentine’s Catholic Church. This time, Beatrice Carpenter and Phyllis Bontrager have stayed home, and Phyllis is killed. The local sheriff is hapless. Beatrice’s son, Gus, editor of the local twice-weekly Pine County Pilot, is desperate for a story that can keep his newspaper alive and begins his own investigation.
Gus Carpenter gets tips from a deputy sheriff and former girlfriend, Darlene Esper, Phyllis’ daughter. He thinks his rival is local television Channel 8’s “slinky, fortyish reporter” Tawny Jane Reece. The true competition — and danger — is from his own reporter, Luke Whistler, who left the Detroit Free Press under a cloud, and from Wayland Eyre Breck, leader of a local evangelical sect who once had an ambiguous association with the Catholic Diocese of Detroit. The break-in at Beatrice’s house was to find material that she has stored away from everyone else and especially herself for six decades. Devastated by the death of her best friend and terrified that secrets from the past will be — literally — unearthed, she commends the lock-box to her son with the admonition “the truth will not set you free.” Gus learns that she is right.
Bryan Gruley was once the Chicago bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and remains reporter at large for Bloomberg News. The Skeleton Box is the third in his highly-praised series of mysteries set at Starvation Lake. With considerable skill, he evokes its grimy determination, for which the local hockey team is the symbol.
Mark Henshaw is a decorated analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. He served three years in its Red Cell, a unit created on September 13, 2001, by then-director George Tenet to “tell me what no one else is telling me.” For since 1941 and Pearl Harbor, the American intelligence community has had on average a disastrous failure every seven years. Fully approved by the CIA’s Publication Review Board, Red Cell is a cautionary tale of the next possible lapse.
The setting is the sea off southeast China. A mistaken gamble by the president of Taiwan leads to a threat by the People’s Republic of China to invade the island. PRC leaders appear undaunted when the United States dispatches an aircraft carrier into the Formosa Straits as a deterrent. The CIA has an “asset,” code named Pioneer, in China’s Ministry of State Security. From his reports, it knows of the PRC’s goal to develop a “carrier killer” in a project called Assassin’s Mace. Does the People’s Liberation Army have a new secret weapon?
Red Cell members Jonathan Burke and Kyra Stryker are charged to find out. The answer is critical to the maintenance of American military power in the western Pacific. An intelligence analysis is never a mere connecting of dots. Instead, it is assembling a jigsaw puzzle when many of the pieces are missing and only guesses are possible about the completed picture. Often, a single clue is the basis for a breakthrough.
For Burke and Stryker, that moment comes when they review a report from Pioneer about the Chinese reaction to the 1999 downing of an F-117 Nighthawk over Serbia. By then, they also learn that the Ministry of State Security has begun surveillance of Pioneer. They must convince a skeptical military command of their conclusion and exfiltrate a man who turned to the West when his own government massacred the dreams of democracy in Tiananmen Square.
Henshaw is a master of detail: the military units and tactics, the CIA tradecraft, the street names, even the location of the Red Cell in Vault 2G31 OHB are accurate. He is rightly angry about the politicization of intelligence. He is old-fashioned about valor and values, as is clear in this exchange, the American Ambassador to Beijing saying, “We do not consider our people to be dispensable,” and the Chinese President replying, “Quite foolish of you, relying on people to make their own choices in such matters. The people do not know what is best.”
And he knows how to tell a thrilling story.