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Life is indeed bleak for many of the town’s residents in Bryan Gruley’s newest mystery, "Bleak Harbor." Carey Peters’ autistic son is missing, lured away by the offer of a milkshake, and his mother and stepfather need to come up with $5 million to get him back.

Carey, frantic about her son, also has other secrets. After receiving a promotion to executive assistant, finance, at Pressman Logistics in Chicago, she ends up in bed with her boss, Randall Pressman, after the two share a celebratory dinner.

It gets even more complicated. She turns down future intimate opportunities with Randall — she is married, after all. When Randall retaliates by harassing her at work, Carey steals incriminating documents proving his involvement in illegal activities and blackmails him for their return.

But that’s just part of the many ominous doings in Bleak Harbor. Pete, Carey’s husband, runs a medical marijuana dispensary and was buying cheap supplies from a Detroit drug ring. Besides her blackmail scheme, Carey’s mother, the malevolent family matriarch, Serenity Meredith Maas Bleak, has her own hidden past. And yes, Carey is related to the founder of the town, which Gruley based on a darker version of Saugatuck, a lovely waterfront destination in southwest Michigan.

Gruley, who shared in the Pulitzer Prize awarded to the Wall Street Journal in 2002 for its coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and now is a staff reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek, draws on his investigative journalism for ideas.

“As a journalist, I’ve written stories from a lot of small towns,” Gruley says.

“What I often discovered was that, whatever the larger theme of the story I was writing, be it an antitrust investigation or telecom deregulation, the real story was rooted in small-‘p’ politics — vendettas, rivalries and grudges between the locals.”

Gruley took a liking to Saugatuck as a model for Bleak Harbor while reporting a story there for The Wall Street Journal some years ago. Part of his interest relates to the lost village of Singapore, a boom town near Saugatuck during the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire.

“I learned about Singapore when I was reporting that WSJ story, and it fascinated me. A timber town buried in the dunes — what’s not cool about that,” Gruley says.

“As for Pete and Carey, I started from a premise that they each had secrets they were hiding from each other, and that those secrets might have put their son in danger. I had no idea at the start what those particular problems might be, but they came to me as I wrote. In Pete’s case, his struggles with the legal marijuana business stemmed in part from my reporting on a medical marijuana entrepreneur for a Bloomberg Businessweek story.”

Gruley added mystery writing to his resume with his Starvation Lake trilogy (also based in Michigan). His first, "Starvation Lake," won the Strand Magazine Critics Award and was an Edgar Award nominee, and his second, "The Hanging Tree" not only was the No. 1 Indie Next Pick for August 2010, a Michigan Notable Book for 2011 and a Kirkus Reviews Best Mystery of 2010, but also has been optioned for a movie by writer-director John Gray.

Even before its December 2018 release, "Bleak Harbor" became a No. 1 bestseller through the Amazon First Reads program.

Gruley, who lives in Chicago, says "Bleak Harbor" isn’t quite as nice as the Saugatuck he and his wife enjoy visiting.

“But that’s OK, because I’m writing about dark deeds and dark people, and I think the title should indicate that,” he says.

”I don’t think of myself as a dark person — except, perhaps, when the Red Wings aren’t playing well. But I do gravitate to the sad, the brooding, the melancholy, the menacing, in the stuff I read, watch, and listen to. For instance, Lehane’s 'Mystic River,' the film, 'Manchester on the Sea,' the twisted lyrics of Richard Thompson. I love the Star Wars movies, but my favorite is probably the darkest, 'The Empire Strikes Back.' ”

Given that penchant and the doings in Bleak Harbor, Gruley says the name Happy Harbor just wouldn’t have worked.


What: Bryan Gruley book events

When and where:

Book Signing and Meet and Greet

7-9 p.m. Jan. 8; Cook Memorial Library; 413 N. Milwaukee Ave.; Libertyville, Illinois; (847) 362-2330;

Authors on Tap

In conversation with Jonathan Eig

7 p.m. Jan. 16; The Beer Shop; 1026 North Blvd.; Oak Park, Illinois; (847) 946-4164;

Conversation with Gregg Hurwitz

7 p.m. Feb. 1; Volumes Bookcafe; 1474 N. Milwaukee Ave.; Chicago; (773) 697-8066;