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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Artifact by Gigi Pandian

October 1, 2014

Henery Press:
2013 (pb)

Gigi Pandian has written the practically perfect cozy mystery, in this, her first novel!  It’s always exhilarating to read a new author—and especially so when that initial effort is so satisfying.

The reader is introduced to Jaya Jones, a young assistant professor of history, who lives and works in San Francisco.  The daughter of an Indian mother and an American father, she rents a Victorian-era Haight-Ashbury walk-up from Nadia, a slightly crazy landlord who, before retiring, traded in the growing and sale of “medical” marijuana.  When not teaching undergraduate classes or researching the East India Company, she relaxes by playing tabla music at the local Tandoori Palace, accompanied by her best friend Sanjay, a magician-in-training as well as possibly the worst sitar player ever.  Her slightly off-kilter circle of acquaintances is rounded out by Miles, the scruffy neighborhood poet, who has either a near-fatal case of puppy love for her or is a certified stalker—she’s not really certain which.

Despite being surrounded by this bevy of loveable losers, Jaya’s day has been a grim one as the curtain rises on Artifact.  She has just been informed that her former lover, Rupert Chadwick, had been killed in an auto accident in the north of Scotland.  While they had parted on something less than amicable terms, the news saddens her more than she might have expected.  Adding to the trauma of the tragic news, the very same day she receives a package from Rupert—sent from the colorfully named Fog and Thistle Inn in Stonehaven, Scotland.  The package contains an East Indian motif band of gold with a huge inset ruby and a note telling her he has sent the artifact to her for safe keeping, that he believes he is in grave danger and will explain further when she calls him.  Given the tenor of the note, Jaya believes, not irrationally, that Rupert has not been the victim of an accident, but rather a murder victim!

Her first inclination is to contact Rupert’s best friend and partner in dodgy enterprises, Knox Bailey.  Both Rupert and Knox had been rather indifferent archaeology students at university—Rupert tending more toward the treasure-hunting type as opposed to the academic and Knox wisely dropping out before charges of plagiarism in his dissertation could be proved.  But Rupert’s note pointedly stresses that he can trust only her—so perhaps Knox is involved in the danger Rupert senses.

Her next potential source of expertise on the artifact is old family friend and UC-Berkley professor of South Asian art history.  He coldly and rather imperiously refers her to Berkley graduate student Lane Peters, who is supposedly the university’s best authority on Indian jewelry.  Peters turns out to be a be-spectacled young man with the drop-dead good looks and the rumpled, slightly seedy aura of the stereotypical academic.  He quickly identifies the object as a bracelet, but one that should not exist!  He explains that it was thought to be apocryphal, existing only in portraits from the Mughal era of India history—inserting into these works of art as a way of graphically exaggerating the wealth and power of the Indian royalty commissioning the paintings.  Lane Peters is clearly excited by the find, expressing his belief that the telltale bracelet can only be one small piece of a larger treasure trove pictured in the art works,  and urges her to accept his help in researching the mystery of the bracelet as it could literally “make his career.”

Upon returning to her flat, Jaya finds that it has been burgled—but apparently not a random break-in because only her jewelry box has been broken into.  The mysterious package from Scotland—possibly the cause of Rupert’s death—has been followed to her very home in Haight-Ashbury!  She grimly determines that she must travel to Scotland to shed light on the death of her ex-lover and the treasure he sent to her.  The Fog and Thistle Inn seems to be an important factor in the mystery as an internet search she undertakes yields information about an archaeology dig, focusing on Pictish standing stones located very near the bed and breakfast pub.  A photo of the dig crew prominently features Rupert’s old friend Knox Bailey and she quickly leaps to the conclusion that if two notorious slackers like Rupert and Knox are on the scene, there is some serious treasure hunting going on.

Jaya quickly books a flight for the United Kingdom, only to find that Lane Peters has booked on the same flight—ostensibly to do research at the British Library to further their mutual knowledge of the provenance of the previously believed fictitious gold bracelet.  But is he telling the truth?

What follows is a wonderfully imaginative romp through London and then the highlands of Scotland as Jaya doggedly persists in her quest to a) find out the truth of Rupert’s untimely death, and b) find the rest of the Indian treasure, if indeed it exists.  With red herrings scattered about like confetti, Gigi Pandian spins an old-fashioned Agatha Christie-type whodunit brought into the 21st century.  And as in a number of Dame Agatha’s very best tales, archaeology plays a central role in puzzling out the answer.  In addition to telling a great story, Ms. Pandian has created a cadre of wonderfully odd-ball characters—best of whom is her heroine/first-person narrator Jaya Jones—and she deftly weaves evocative descriptions of the landscape and climate along the North Sea edge of Scotland into the very fabric of her novel.

Four trowels for Artifact—five if I were allowed to do so!