Death Pans Out, Ashna Graves' debut novel introducing journalist Jeneva "Neva" Leopold, is a quiet, 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 so well have 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 lot 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 with an 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.