Review: Fresh Grave in Grand Canyon (Lee Patton)

Very nearly DNF this. SPOILERS

My initial reaction: this book made me a little angry. Category-wise, it was billed as a mystery. The summary makes it seem a mystery. Do not be fooled. It is not. Well, most of it is not. And the people…

Ray O’Brien volunteers to go on a rafting research trip with his pal Jenny Bridger, who is leading a science-gathering, after she winds up a man (person) down. It’s a trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. His role? Not much: just help out. His stepfather was some kind of psycho, so of course his academic life is consumed by studying the neuro effects of that. He meets Duke first, who is skinny dipping in the same water hole he just got out of. Of course there’s an instant attraction. Two tropes: violent, abusive past, and instalust if not instalove.

The larger group: Jenny, the team leader, who of course is apprehensive about her first team lead job, feeling guilty about missing her daughter Amelia’s graduation, because the trip has to start the same day. Trope: working mother has to choose between job and family. Other trope: she’s divorced.

Carol Carne, longtime activist volunteer and pediatric nurse, and her husband Jack, fat, rude insurance salesman, and of no value to the trip, really. Trope: alcoholic, bigoted, horndog husband ogling a teenaged girl; saint of a wife who abides him.

Duke, Park Ranger, who served in the military as a peacekeeper in the Balkans and lost his left arm there. Trope: Tough guy with a sensitive heart of gold. And also PTSD.

Annette & Tess, two female students,also volunteers. Trope: Sexy Tess draw’s Jack’s eye.

There are a few bigoted RVers next to the crew as they get feed and do final prep for rafting. Of course they are crude, and Jack joins in with them. One of them calls Tess a n******, and Duke a “crip”, furter suggests there are quotas being met. Trope: the bigotry of the world one might think to escape on a rafting trip, but alas, rude,crude, bigoted Jack is along for the ride.

Glen, the river guide, who is given over to pontificating about how people are destroying the planet. Carol does this as well, but it seems Glen is the one carrying the trope of ecoterrorist onto the river.

Tycho, an oarsman, brought by Glen. Trope: the cute boy the girls moon over. Also given to ecorants, because he lives with Glen.

Hannah Pinch, camp cook and Jenny’s soon-to-be ex-mother in law, with whom she has a better relationship than she does with Faith’s son. Trope: yeah, that.

Faith Brittle, director of a Montana college’s Women’s Studies Program, oarswoman and guide. Trope: Militant feminism and demonization of men.

Take all the tropes, put them on boats, and send them down a river. Have Trope Bigoted Jerk get tossed out of his raft on the first rapids sequence. When they stop for the night, get a little lecture about Trope Men are B-A-D, have some discussion about bullying, how people are ruining the planet, and discuss Duke’s enlistment in the Army and deployment. Oh, throw a little science in there now and again, since that’s supposed to be why they’re there.

Wash, lather, repeat.

Finally, at the 70% mark, get around to the murder that’s featured so prominently in the blurb. Jack’s either had his head hit, or he’s hit his head while falling/stumbling or something. Tess is on the beach, and for some reason her bikini top is loosened or off. Duke is first to the scene, and he reties Tess’ top, then for some odd reason, drags Jack’s body about ten feet or so. And this is the part where I got mad, after sitting through all these social things the author clearly wanted to say. o they need to be said? Yes. Are they important things? Absolutely. Did they need to be said like this, instead of in, say, a nonfiction book, instead of with a half-hearted murder thrown in? Nope.

In a world obsessed with images and videos, and the one time you would absolutely want to take either pictures and/or videos, and preferably both – like when there’s been a murder (maybe) or a death by misadventure (maybe) – no one in your entire party thinks to do so? Or at least, with all the science nerds in the group who are used to drawing mud layouts or strata, at least make some sketches of the scene, not a single brainiac thinks to do so? Come on. Nothing at all is done to preserve the scene. But you know what does happen?

Everyone with the ability and in the right place to do so wants to take the credit/blame for the murder of a terrible man. Carol, his wife, she wants the blame. Then Glen, then Duke. There’s even a brief discussion of Tess having done it, without remembering. Jenny decides she and Ray will talk to everyone, but by this time, they’ve all been talking amongst themselves, and both of them act like they’re never spoken to another human being in this instance.

In the end, they dig a shallow grave – the “Fresh Grave” of the title – put Jack in it, and move on, intending to get to a particular spot in the river, which is the next it of civilization (sort of, it’s the next station on the river). There is a Canadian group about a day behind them. Do they wait and say anything to the Canadians, or ask them if they can use their satphone to call ahead (Jenny’s crew lost theirs into the water when shooting some rapids; Duke finds it, but it’s a goner)? Nope. They let the Canadians go ahead an then they mount up and head downriver.

Keep in mind, this is all at the 70% mark when Jack is killed. That leaves next to no time, book-wise, to get to the bottom of it, and the only bottom of it we have is a bunch of conflicting confessions. in the end, no one is blamed, they report Jack’s death as misadventure, and that’s it.

I wanted to like it. Small group, killer among us, rafting in sometimes dangerous conditions, with a hundred things that could go wrong, and basically cut off from civilization? That should be a great story. Unfortunately, we got a lot of social justice and environmental stuff, and the afterthought of a murder. None of the characters really moves past the trope tied around their necks except, ironically, Jack, who winds up killed because he’s the epitome of a bunch of things wrong with the world today.

As a sidenote: the Ray/Duke romance is not, really. They share one kiss, and usually snuggle up in their sleeping bags when stopping for the nights, but every other chance to be alone is interrupted. There’s a slight hint of things going somewhere at the end, but Ray lives elsewhere, so who knows. This is an undeveloped subplot.

It seems the author couldn’t make up their mind as to what they really wanted to write. If it was about all the social stuff, I’d give it maybe 3.5 stars. As a mystery, I’m giving it two stars out of five. Sorry.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

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