Author's latest Michigan-based mystery inspired by 1968 murder

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When writing his latest novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bryan Gruley didn’t set out to make his main character, Jubilee Rathman, likeable, much less lovable.

But the Detroit native, 62, did set out to make Jubilee – whom he described as complex and tragic – interesting.

“A person of Jubilee’s intelligence, focus, and resourcefulness can’t be anything but interesting. I didn’t set out to make her ‘likeable’ or ‘sympathetic’ because I thought it would ring hollow. I did try to make it clear how and why she got into the position she did, and what motivated her,” explained Gruley, author of “Purgatory Bay” (Thomas & Mercer $24.95). 

At the start of “Purgatory Bay,” Jubilee, of Clarkston, is a straight-A student and star soccer player who’s headed to Princeton University on a scholarship. That all changes when her family is brutally murdered. A dozen years later, Jubilee lives in the fictional town of Purgatory Bay – located on the southwest side of Michigan, near Berrien County – plotting revenge against those responsible.

One of the people she’s targeting is journalist Michaela “Mikey” Deming, who Jubilee believes got her family in trouble with the Detroit mob.

“Mikey herself is like many a rookie journalist I’ve met: smart but not necessarily savvy, eager but perhaps a little too eager and a bit too trusting of her supposed superiors,” explained Gruley, a journalist for Bloomberg Businessweek, a weekly business magazine, and former Chicago bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal.

Jubilee kidnaps Mikey’s family, which is the kickoff to her campaign of retribution.

“I know I wanted to write about the idea that certain people who have lots of power and money frequently cause others to suffer – with impunity. Jubilee sets out to make sure the people who made her suffer don’t get away with it,” said Gruley.

Police chief Katya Malone – still reeling from the events of “Bleak Harbor,” Gruley’s previous novel – leads the manhunt for Jubilee. However, Malone soon discovers Jubilee is much more cunning than she ever imagined as Jubilee always seems to be one step ahead of her.

“Katya’s role is what you might expect of a police chief: She’s trying to figure out why (people are) missing,” said Gruley. “Of course, that leads to other dark stuff. Katya’s burden is made heavier by her knowledge that her last search for a kidnapped person (in ‘Bleak Harbor’) didn’t end well.”

The author pointed out that Malone is not incompetent by any means.

“I’ve never thought of Katya as the least bit incompetent,” he said. “In both books, she does her very best. But she faces obstacles – even some in her own town – that are largely beyond her control.”

The impetus for “Purgatory Bay” came from the Robison family murders in 1968 that occurred in Good Hart, a town on the shores of Lake Michigan north of Harbor Springs.

The Robison family – Richard and his wife Shirley, along with their four children – were vacationing in their cottage when they were heinously murdered on June 25, 1968; they were either shot and/or bludgeoned to death with a hammer.

Their bodies weren’t discovered for nearly a month. Neighbors complained of a foul stench coming from the Robisons’ cottage. On July 22, 1968, a caretaker checked on the Robisons and pried open the front door to discover their bodies, which were badly decomposed.

Police suspected Joseph R. Scolaro III, a 30-year-old Birmingham resident and disgruntled employee of Robison, who ran a publishing company and lived in Lathrup Village.

Scolaro was believed to have been embezzling from Robison, and his alibi at the time of the murders was inconsistent. Also, two of the murder weapons were known to have been in his possession at one point, but Scolaro claimed to have given them away when the murders occurred. Still, Scolaro was the prime suspect.

However, the late Emmet County Prosecutor Donald C. Noggle didn’t charge Scolaro and go through with the expense of a trial, citing the absence of fingerprints at the crime scene and the missing weapons. The Emmet County Board of Commissioners also didn’t want to shoulder the cost of such a lengthy trial.

In 1972, the investigation shifted to Oakland County when the late L. Brooks Patterson, who was then the Oakland County Prosecutor, wanted to charge Scolaro since Robison’s business was based in Oakland County, where the alleged embezzlement occurred.

Before police could arrest Scolaro, however, he committed suicide on March 8, 1973. His suicide note stated he didn’t kill the Robisons. 

These murders indelibly tarnished the peaceful reputation of Good Hart as a summer resort mecca and left its mark on people, including Gruley. His family cabin was on Twin
Lake, not far from where the Robison murders occurred.

“I read about the Robisons in The Detroit News when I was 10,” recalled Gruley. “A few years later, my parents bought a cottage in northern lower Michigan, not far from where the Robisons were killed. I would lie awake at night in the cottage, waiting for a killer to sneak in and murder us all in the dark. It never left me, and I guess I knew someday I’d write about the Robisons in some form.”

Hence his latest novel.

“The murders of the Robison family were the model for a family murder in ‘Purgatory Bay,’” said Gruley.

According to the author, “Purgatory Bay” is not a traditional murder mystery.

“The book is dark, for sure, and complex in that it bounces among the points of view of several characters and shifts back and forth in time,” he said. “It’s definitely not a traditional murder mystery, where a ‘likeable’ character solves a murder. Rather, ‘Purgatory Bay’ works backwards. It’s pretty clear early on who’s doing the killing – or trying to. The tension lies in whether the good guys can stop the bad guys before things get really ugly.”

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