The dangerous strait between Washington Island and the point of Wisconsin's peninsula is strewn about with shipwrecks and believed to be haunted with the souls of lost sailors and overconfident swimmers. French settlers to the area named the place "Porte des Morts," or Death's Door.
Set in Door County, Wisconsin, even the title of Brian Freeman's The Bone House conjures 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. The house's fiery destruction smolders at the center of this scorching suspense novel that will have extra appeal for readers who have spent time wandering the candle shops and cafes of the peninsula.
Everything in the story 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 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 for a quieter life. Recently dismissed from his teaching job after an accusation of sleeping with a student, Bradley is being smothered by a caul of suspicion and anger.
Cab Bolton, the detective who trails the investigation from Florida to Wisconsin, is perceived as a "spoiled beach bum" with a celebrity mother and a comfortable trust fund. Instead he's a flawed man using his wealth to keep the world at a distance. Each character has a detailed backstory, and although I liked Bolton's GQ style and his cynical sensibilities, I thought his backstory)distracted from the main plot powering the suspense.
Fans of Freeman's Jonathan Stride series set in Duluth already know that the relationship between person and place is a hallmark of Freeman's writing. This stand-alone is no exception. The "ship-in-a-bottle world" of Door County's landscape, the raw beauty of the Lake Michigan coast, the remoteness of harbor towns like Fish Creek (despite being "choked with tourists in August") are all captured beautifully, and, more importantly, mirror the emotional lives of the 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, and I'd like to see Freeman visit Death's Door again.