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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay

May 1, 2001

Soho Press, New York
2001

This elegantly written novel is a re-print of a classic mystery first published in 1952.  It was, in fact, the first recipient of the “Edgar Award for Best Novel” nearly fifty years ago.  The “Edgars” are the highest form of recognition awarded to mysteries and mystery writers.

The setting for this story is post war Papua-New Guinea as a young widow, Stella Warwick seeks answers to the mysterious death of her husband, an anthropologist working among the indigenous peoples the island of Marapai.  While the official cause of death has been established as suicide, Stella believes this to be so out of character for her husband that she is driven to seek out answers on her own.

Her investigations begin with those officials of the government of Australia who have been assigned to re-assume the “White Man’s Burden” in New Guinea after the defeat of the Japanese, all of whom either worked for or with her husband.  Some of these individuals are seemingly helpful and empathetic; others indifferent, and still others are unabashedly hostile and obstructionist.  All of them know more than they are willing to tell—or so it seems as Stella pursues her single-minded passion.  This passion ultimately drives Stella to penetrate the interior of the island to find the village of the primitive indigenes in which the suicide reportedly took place.

This novel works wonderfully on three different but wholly integrated planes.  The mystery itself is a compelling one:  Charlotte Jay’s subtle writing keeps the reader wondering whether Stella’s search is not, in reality, the result of an obsessed widow quickly losing her tenuous grip on reality or if, in fact, her husband was the victim of foul play.  Jay also describes the metamorphosis of Stella from a timid, frightened young widow into a tough, self-reliant zealot who, against the wishes of friend or foe alike, fearlessly (or foolishly) strikes off into the interior to find the answers she must have.  The third element is the jungle itself.  In writing reminiscent of Joseph Conrad, Charlotte Jay describes the foreboding lushness of the New Guinea interior in such a way that the jungle itself becomes a major character—perhaps the major character in the novel.  Jay also writes subtly and with great insight into the dynamics that come into play when supposedly “advanced” cultures come face to face with supposedly “primitive” cultures.

This is a beautifully written book that deserves a wide audience—even though a half-century has passed since its first publication.