iUniverse Books, Lincoln, NE
As I have stated before in these reviews, it is almost always a delight to discover a new author who has selected archaeology fiction as his or her genre of choice. This is certainly the case with Sarah Wisseman, an archaeologist and former museum curator who presently teaches archaeological science at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign.
Her first entry in the Lisa Donahue series is not without its flaws, but there are undeniable strengths in Ms. Wisseman’s writing and I look forward to future Donahue mysteries. Her protagonist is an intelligent and sympathetic character-a recently widowed single mom who struggles with the stresses and strains of daily life while trying to turn her limited term curator job at the Boston University Museum of Archaeology and History into a permanent position. She has been assigned to curate a new exhibit on Egyptian funerary practices, first dubbed “Crypts and Queens,” and later changed to the more elegant Bound for Eternity, cleverly playing upon the double meaning of “bound” when applied to Egyptian mummies. As if the exhibit, her competing with a seemingly total twit named Carl Jacobson and her harried home life were not enough to cause stress and strain on Lisa, her discovery of the brutally murdered body of a museum colleague, preparatory Marion Grainger throws Lisa and the entire museum staff into a tizzy and a panic. Add to this soupcon a boss who seems to act more mysteriously than necessary, colleagues whose various dysfunctional attributes make them logical suspects, the apparently deliberate misplacement of museum artifacts and the appearance of artifacts that shouldn’t be there, and finally the murder of yet a second museum staff member within the confines of the museum-and now you have the ingredients of a very good mystery novel!
Sarah Wisseman strengthens her story with some very atmospheric writing, especially as it details the nooks and crannies of the “attic” museum that is the fictional Museum of Archaeology and History-which is apparently based very much on a similar institute at the University of Illinois. She also handles the details of archaeological investigation, particularly utilizing such high tech tools as X-Ray, CT scans, and endoscopic procedures to seek out the identity of the focal point of her Egyptian funerary exhibit-a 2,000-year-old Greco-Roman era mummy. She also describes some of the more arcane aspects of academic life, such as grant proposal writing and petty departmental politics-although the politics may not be so petty if they include murder times two!
The flaws of this first effort are not great, but ought to be addressed in future novels. Some can be remedied with more careful editing. For instance, the reference to a “dreary day in November” on page 101 should not be followed on page 124 by a description of Halloween festivities. More novel-writing experience will, I believe, lead to livelier dialogue and some of the domestic and romantic details (Lisa more or less innocently steals her best friend’s boyfriend) really don’t seem to move the plot ahead very much nor do they necessarily help the reader understand what makes the major characters tick, and if they are to be a part of future Lisa Donohue mysteries, they should be used more subtly.
This initial work deserves a strong 2 ½ trowels, with the hope that the second Lisa Donohue mystery will earn an even better ranking.