Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mystery Book Review: Death Pans Out by Ashna Graves

Mysterious ReviewsMysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, has written our review of Death Pans Out by Ashna Graves. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.Death Pans Out by Ashna Graves

Death Pans Out by Ashna Graves
A Jeneva Leopold Mystery

Poisoned Pen Press (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1-59058-373-6 (1590583736)
ISBN-13: 978-1-59058-373-9 (9781590583739)
Publication Date: March 2007
List Price: $24.95

Synopsis (from the publisher): While recovering from a double mastectomy, journalist Jeneva Leopold seeks solitude and healing at her uncle's idle gold mine in the sagebrush desert of Eastern Oregon. Hiking the rocky ridges, swimming in the old mining pond, and ignoring the outside world save for occasional letters, Jeneva gains strength and a new will to live.

As her interest in life returns, so do Jeneva's journalistic habits. And though the locals are at first puzzled by all of her questions, she soon gets to know a young woman rancher, various miners, a quirky old artifact hunter, and an itinerant priest and medieval scholar. These people and other colorful locals give her the inside story on living in the harsh landscape of sagebrush and coyotes and revealing how the old west is changing under new economics and regulation.

But the Oregon desert is also a place of secrets. The more Jeneva talks with the locals, the more she wonders about her uncle's mysterious disappearance. Why did her uncle and her mother stop talking so many years ago? Does she know more than she is acknowledging? The murder of a young miner sends her on a quest for answers, leading her to an elderly woman artist living in a converted chicken house, a tongue-tied funeral home owner, and a swashbuckling sheriff with rule-bending tendencies.

The appalling business she uncovers shocks the region and nearly claims her life, but it also brings closure to an old family misunderstanding and the enigma of her uncle's fate.

Review: Death Pans Out, Ashna Graves' debut novel introducing journalist Jeneva "Neva" Leopold, is a quietly absorbing mystery that captures the remoteness of the high desert of Oregon in a way that complements the engaging characters and a decidedly chilling plot.

Following a double mastectomy and subsequent depression, Neva escapes to a mining cabin in eastern Oregon formerly inhabited by her uncle who disappeared 15 years ago. The remoteness of the region and minimal conveniences of modern living have a startling effect on Neva: she rapidly recovers from her depression and her long walks around the area have rejuvenated her body.

Meeting up with some of the local residents and discussing their lives stirs up her journalistic instincts. She begins by investigating the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of her uncle. How could someone who knew the area well have so completely vanished? The recent murder of a young miner and another gone missing don't seem related to her in any way; men had always killed for gold, she says. Yet the mysterious appearances in the middle of the night of a truck rumbling along the old mining roads are hardly coincidental and suggest there may be something more sinister happening than anyone is aware of.

The mystery is terrific and the characters are colorful and well drawn. But the real appeal of Death Pans Out is in the way Graves captures the imagination of the reader with her descriptions of the region and Neva's exploration of it. There isn't a log of dialog; Neva spends most of her time alone. But she is hardly lonely. Her joy at discovering her new environment and her recovery in it is expressed as inspired and eloquent narrative. Following the resolution of the mystery, the conclusion is both poignant and appropriate.

As a stand-alone effort, Death Pans Out is wonderfully complete. However, it would be even better if Graves brings the captivating Neva back for a subsequent mystery.

Special thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for providing an ARC of Death Pans Out for this review.

Review Copyright © 2007 Hidden Staircase Mystery Books

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