CLEARWATER LAKE is a mystery novel, following the events surrounding the disappearance of ELY LUNDGREN, who has died ice fishing out at Clearwater Lake in the dead of a Minnesota winter.
The story opens, two weeks after Ely’s disappearance, in the voice of his wife LAUREN LUNDGREN. As Lauren deals with her husband’s sudden disappearance, she is surprised to learn of her friend RACHEL DELARNEY’s engagement to the youngest of the three Lundgren brothers, TOMMY LUNDGREN who is also the town’s deputy sheriff. For years, Lauren’s marriage to Ely has been unhappy and mutually abusive, and she is worried her friend is embarking on a similar path, even though Tommy is very different to the other Lundgren family members, especially the violent eldest brother HENRY.
Rachel’s attempt to get her new fiancé accepted by her own family is observed by her younger sister, AMELIA DELARNEY, a smart, sassy kid who is wheelchair bound. Amelia is unlikely friends with CHARLIE FORTUNE, a troubled teen, whose own parents’ marriage is disintegrating. Amelia, in particular, is obsessed by another recent piece of local news, the hold up of a bank that occurred a few days before Ely’s disappearance, a crime likely committed by Henry and Ely.
With Ely still missing, Lauren’s internal conflict grows. On one hand, she is pleased that her husband is gone and the domestic abuse has halted, but there is an unresolved element of their past that prevents her reaching closure. Searching hard for leads, Sheriff MARTIN DEWEY finds himself growing closer to Lauren and, as trust between them develops, she reveals more to him about Ely and the Lundgren family, including the role of its overbearing matriarch CONNIE LUNDGREN. Henry and Connie Lundgren become increasingly menacing figures in Lauren’s life, culminating in the killing of her dog and the delivery of an anonymous message, demanding to know what has happened to the money from the bank robbery which we learn went missing at the same time as Ely.
After a burned out getaway car is discovered in the woods, Sheriff Dewey and Deputy Tommy establish a link between a small time criminal called Sol Sawyer and Henry. However, before they can question either of them, Sawyer is murdered and Henry disappears . Soon afterwards, Lauren receives a second anonymous note, revealing the whereabouts of Ely’s body at Clearwater Lake. On the trip to recover Ely’s remains, emotionally raw, Lauren finally reveals to Dewey the reason why she never left Ely, despite his abusiveness: a late-stage abortion that they went through as teenagers. At Clearwater Lake, they discover Ely’s body in his ice fishing tent, a knife sunk up to the hilt in his chest, with empty beer cans and liquor bottles scattered around, staged to make the death look like a drunken fishing accident.
After the discovery of her son’s body, Connie Lundgren grows increasingly aggressive and unpredictable, angry about Lauren’s growing closeness to Dewey, and by Tommy’s relationship with Rachel, who is encouraging him to break free from the control Connie has successfully exerted over the family for years.
Dewey finally breaks open the case when he determines the second anonymous note to Lauren, telling her where to find Ely’s body, was not sent by Henry, as he’d previously assumed, but by Tommy. In an emotional confession, Tommy reveals what had happened the day Ely died. He explains that Henry and Ely had initially gone up to the lake to split off some of the money from the robbery, but had arrived to find their hiding place empty. The two brothers had argued, and, during a drunken fight, Ely had been killed. Henry had panicked and run to ask their mother what he should do. Tommy reveals that Connie had called him and instructed him to return with Henry to Clearwater and help make Ely’s death look like an accident. Tommy regretfully tells Dewey that he had agreed to his mother’s request, and recounts how he had gone about staging Ely’s death in the tent out on the frozen lake.
While Dewey is hearing Tommy’s confession, Connie Lundgren confronts Lauren in a final attempt to find the money from the robbery. Lauren comes to realize that, even with Ely in the ground, she will never be free from the Lundgrens while ever Connie is alive. She lures her back to her house, where the two of them finally confront the unspoken secret that has bound Lauren to Ely and the family over the years. The late-stage teenage abortion that Lauren and Ely went through was, in fact, not Ely’s child, but the result of Lauren being raped by Ray Lundgren, Ely’s father and Connie Lundgren’s husband. Between them, Connie and Lauren had misled Ely into thinking the child was his. We also learns that, despite his underlying violent temperament, Henry has loved Lauren for years and has tried, unsuccessfully, to protect her from both his father and Ely’s violence. In their final confrontation, Connie Lundgren blames Lauren for the disintegration of the family and accuses her of hiding the missing money. In a rage, she threatens to kill Lauren with a kitchen knife. However, Lauren overpowers her and, although she has a choice not to do so, she shoots Connie dead, firing three shots at point blank range.
After killing Connie Lundgren, Lauren calls Dewey who faces a difficult decision. Despite evidence to the contrary, he chooses to cover up the death as an act of self-defense. He also decides not to act on Tommy’s confession about what happened at the lake, instead allowing the conclusion that Ely’s death was the result of a drunken fishing accident to stand.
In a final twist, unknown to Dewey, Lauren meets Henry one last time at Clearwater Lake. She hands over the money from the robbery which, we learn, she has known the whereabouts of throughout, having hatched the original plan with Ely to double cross Connie and Henry. In an attempt to make a final break from everything to do with the Lundgrens, Lauren strikes a deal with Henry: that he will use the money to leave town and never return. While Henry still loves Lauren, he realizes his feelings are not reciprocated, and he reluctantly accepts the arrangement, leaving Lauren free to pursue a new start with Dewey.