Lee Patton, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for Nothing Gold Can Stay (written as Casey Nelson), returns to his Award-nominated character Ray O’Brien (last seen in Love and Genetic Weaponry: The Beginner’s Guide) in his latest mystery Fresh Grave in Grand Canyon. Ray, a high-school drama teacher, volunteers as a research assistant on a Wildlands Society expedition through the Grand Canyon: for three weeks, the Canyon will be closed to the public so that the team can record mud and seed scatter data from the Glen Dam Canyon Release, part of an effort to recreate pre-dam river surges in the Canyon. Joining Ray are the expedition leader (Jenny Bridger, a family friend), two other Society volunteers (Annette and Tess), a Texas couple (Jack and Carol Carne), an oarsman (Glen Hayes), an oarswoman (Faith Brattle), a guide in training (Tycho Bracken), a Park Ranger (Dukarić, nicknamed “Duke”), and the cook (Hannah Pinch—Jenny’s mother-in-law; or rather, ex-mother-in-law). Naturally, in a group this size, comprised from individuals of varying backgrounds (and amounts of emotional baggage), tensions arise and conflict ensues; however, by the 42nd mile of a 300-mile river trip, Jack (who quickly establishes himself as the least popular expedition member) is found dead on a secluded beach in the Canyon, presumably murdered.
The tension begun in the first half of the novel only increases as the second half follows Ray and Jenny as they try to solve the mystery: suddenly, eighteenth-century Mormon graves and shipwreck memorials become ominous foreshadowings. Ray (and the reader), naturally, after meeting the other characters and learning their backgrounds, have certain expectations as to who might have a motive, which are deftly subverted by Patton; the narrative twists and turns nearly as much as the Colorado River. Complicating this narrative further is the intense attraction Ray feels for Duke: however, Duke, like everyone else on this expedition, is fighting numerous demons. Even if he reciprocates Ray’s attraction, should Ray follow through on it? (Ray, like many characters in long-running mystery series, has not had a stellar track record regarding romantic partners.)
The mystery of how Jack died is only one stratum of Patton’s novel. Interspersed throughout each character’s story is the story of the Grand Canyon itself, from its multi-million year old fossils to the more recent lore of the humans who have explored and died in it. In addition to his research into the history of the Grand Canyon, Patton has rafted the Colorado River through the Canyon twice, and he communicates a sense of wonder and awe that makes me want to see the Canyon for myself (and also check to see if the places in the novel mesh with the actual physical Canyon).
And of course, Jack’s death is not the only mystery in this novel. Will Ray’s attraction towards Duke be returned and develop further? (And talk about dramatic foreshadowing: the novel’s opening scene between Ray and Duke is hot. I was reading just as much to find out how that mystery turns out as much as whodunit.) So this novel asks several, all compelling, questions: How did Jack Carne die? What does responsible stewardship of the Grand Canyon look like? Will Ray and Duke become an item? These questions and more will keep you turning the pages to uncover the answers.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske