In the mystery genre, where the usual suspects, flatfoots, and set-pieces have been mixed and matched for more than a century, a reader (still) welcomes any chance to get away from the private eye's office with its bottle of Jim Beam aging in the filing cabinet. So perhaps it's not surprising that Sarah Andrews earned a fair amount of attention for "Tensleep," her first novel, which introduced sleuthing to the oil fields of wide-open Wyoming -- in the person of one Emily "Em" Hansen, geologist-in-training and mud slogger (which is a slim notch above roustabout). It was a case of "The Big Sleep" meets The Big Sky, and a charming combination.
In her new book, "A Fall in Denver," Andrews has shifted the scene, and promoted Em to a full-fledged geologist's job where the real oil business takes place -- at the home office in a slim glass-and-steel Denver skyscraper. It's late September, and quickly apparent that fall in this western city is no autumn in New York. There's a disturbing series of suspicious suicides, for one thing; oilmen in Em's building are crashing through the plate glass and falling thicker than aspen leaves on the sidewalks below. Is this just a mixture of despair and unoriginality, or a resurgence of that deliciously medieval murder method, defenestration?
The answer to that question is a very long time coming; Andrew's general pacing here gives you perhaps too much insight into the term geological time. It may take several million years to turn a forest into a puddle of light sweet crude, but it needn't have taken Andrews more than half this book before making it clear that murder has occurred, and the game is afoot. That slow drift into action, and the excessively detailed first-person narrative that accompanies it, make "A Fall in Denver" fairly laborious. Time for this self-professed cowgirl from Chungwater, Wyoming to light out for the territory. Home, Em, is where the suspense is.