Even the title of Brian Freeman's latest, "The Bone House" (Minotaur, 352 pages, $24.99), has a high chill factor, conjuring images of exposed skeletons, decayed bodies and death. "Painted over with thick coats of bitterness and bile," Harris and Nettie Bone's house looms at the end of a lonely rural lane on Kangaroo Lake in Wisconsin's Door County. The house's fiery destruction smolders at the center of this scorching suspense novel.
Everything has a connection to the life and death of Glory Fischer, the only survivor of the Bone house fire. Hiding in the barn, feeding a stray, 10-year-old Glory witnesses Nettie Bone and her sons burned to death. Six years later on a Florida beach, Glory is murdered. The investigation returns to Door County, aptly named Porte des Mortes (Death's Door) by French settlers.
The Bone house fire, like the novel's plot, is unpredictable and twisting, its unanswered questions and lingering secrets affecting the lives of the novel's ensemble of compelling characters. Mark Bradley and his wife, Hilary, moved from the suburbs of Chicago to Washington Island, a remote fishing community off the northern tip of the Door peninsula, "for a quieter life." Dismissed from his teaching job after an accusation of sleeping with a student, Bradley is covered like a caul with suspicion and anger.
Cab Bolton, the Florida detective who trails the investigation to Door County, is seen as a "spoiled beach bum" with a celebrity mother and a trust fund. Instead he's a flawed man using his wealth to "deal with the ugliness of the world." Each character has a rich back story, and although I liked Bolton's GQ style and his cynical sensibilities, I thought his back story (about the death of his wife) distracted from the main plot lines powering the suspense.
Fans of Freeman's Jonathan Stride series set in Duluth know that the relationship between person and place is a hallmark of Freeman's writing. In this book, he has surpassed himself. The "ship-in-a-bottle world" of Door County's "candle shops and cafes," the raw beauty and unforgiving landscape of the Lake Michigan coast are captured beautifully and mirror the emotional lives of the main characters. The Bradleys, for example, like their house on Washington Island, are "cut off from civilization, isolated and empty."
In the end, "The Bone House" more than lives up to its evocative title. I'd like to see Freeman visit Death's Door again.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at www.carolebarrowman.com.