Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Debut Mysteries: Scott Graham, CANYON SACRIFICE; Victoria Griffith, AMAZON BURNING

One of my favorite parts of reading a wide range of mysteries is watching for the new authors and their "first books" -- at least, the first in this area. I enjoy speculating on who's going to craft a successful series based on that first public appearance. And when I'm right, it's extra interesting to continue collecting the rest of that author's work, knowing I spotted the first promising book!

Reading CANYON SACRIFICE by Scott Graham was an up-and-down ride. The pace and language do have a bit of that "first appearance" feel to them -- maybe a result of having reworked the story several times over a couple of years? -- and the book's a bit short, skating around some areas that could have had more depth and complexity. I also felt a couple of the plot twists were awkward. But Graham is no stranger to writing about the outdoor life in general (he's already won a National Outdoor Book Award in nonfiction), and this Grand Canyon mystery is a satisfying read. Chuck Bender, an archaeologist with a lot of experience in looking for signs of the earliest Native people in the region, has brought his new and quite impulsively married wife, as well as her two young daughters, to see the canyon and experience some camping as well. But almost immediately, his stepfathering role gets slammed with every parent's nightmare: a missing child. Is it his fault? Can the marriage work, the child be found in time, and can he stay out of legal trouble and deadly risk in the meantime?

Graham and his publisher, Torrey House, promise a series of these books -- "A National Park Mystery" -- and I'm looking forward to them! I'd say this first in the series is a great start, and blurbs from Margaret Coel and William Kent Krueger convince me that Graham's Western tribal knowledge is likely to be sound. Consider the series a cross between Nevada Barr and, ever so slightly, Tony Hillerman; dig in for an enjoyable read.

I'm less sure about the direction that Victoria Griffith is taking, now that I've read her entry into YA mystery-with-sexuality, AMAZON BURNING. This author -- also experienced in nonfiction, with 20-plus years as an international journalist, including in Brazil, where the book is set -- opted to shape a thriller around environmental issues that matter deeply to her. College student and would-be journalist Emma Cohen joins her dad in Brazil and tags along when he makes a trip into the Amazon basin. Leaning for protective backup on a hunky guy also tagging along (as photographer), she follows up on rumors about an animal smuggling ring and gets into serious trouble. In the midst of the jungle, she also tangles with the aforementioned hunk ...

Griffith knows what she's talking about in terms of the environmental and justice issues on her plate. I'm less convinced by her portrayal of steamy sex in the jungle, and I have a problem with her protagonist depending on others to rescue her repeatedly (I think it violates the best rule of today's mysteries, which is, watch the protagonist grow as both person and detective, with muscles if possible). It might still work well enough for inexperienced readers who'll enjoy the story, though. My other issue with the book is that there are so few Brazilian mysteries that comparing it with Leighton Gage's series is inevitable -- but Griffith doesn't provide the depth or the moral ambiguity that Gage did. Still, someone has to tackle the Brazilian mystery area, and it's a good try for a first mystery by this globally highly experienced author. Worth watching to see what comes next! (And check out this interview with the author.)

If you're making a gift list (December is SO conducive to that!), these books will fit best for the reader who's already interested in the location itself, the key to the story's charm for both Graham and Griffith.

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