You've got to have a corpse

Ashna Graves

“Soon after I started writing my first mystery, a friend turned up with a grocery sack full paperbacks,” recalled Ashna Graves. “She said, ‘If you’re going to write mysteries, you have to read them.’ I read the first and last paragraph in each one, then finished writing my mystery, Plastic Baby. It was terrible – there wasn’t even a murder in it!”

In March, the first of three Graves mysteries will be published by Poisoned Pen Press in Arizona. All feature the same main character, or P.I. (Principal Investigator), newspaper columnist Jeneva Leopold. Leopold works for the Willamette Current, a daily paper published in Willamette, Oregon, a town “eerily like Corvallis, right down to The Beanery,” said Graves, associate director of the Center and the author of a nonfiction book, short stories, and many magazine and newspaper articles.

Though the second two mysteries in the series take place entirely in Willamette, the first, Death Pans Out, is set at an idle gold mine in Eastern Oregon near the Idaho border, where Leopold has gone to spend a summer regaining her health following breast cancer. The setting and most of the characters are based on the land and people that Graves encountered some years ago while staying at a real-life gold mine in the Burnt River area.

The two mysteries set in Willamette, No Angel and Gripper, draw on actual events and crimes that occurred in Corvallis in the 1980s and 1990s, including the riverfront park controversy, the investigation of the OSU basketball team by the NCAA, and the violent death of a street person.

“It’s a bit of a nuisance,” said Graves, “but it turns out you really do have to have a murder in a mystery.”

As a former reporter, editor and columnist, Graves knows the inner world of newspapers, and describes the general columnist as a perfect P.I. because “they’re not just free to snoop into anything and everything but invited to snoop. Readers want to tell you things, often amazing things. You can ask the most personal questions without seeming rude or prying, and you get drawn into just about everything, from backroom deals to family feuds.”

The manuscript for Plastic Baby is stashed in a box in her basement, but should the other mysteries succeed, said Graves. “I may dig it out and add a corpse to the story. Or two corpses, or three, or . . .”