Poisoned Pen Press: Scottsdale, AZ
Dr. Sophia Townsend was a brilliant archaeologist, but one who was reputed to be a foul-tempered loner who often made working for her a living hell. In 1987 her one-woman cultural resources firm undertook an excavation for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in rural Oklahoma. She hired a number of local citizens for her crew and began a dig which would ultimately, the tribal officials hoped, allow them to build an archaeological park and museum to draw tourism to the small community of Sylacauga. But then Sophia abruptly disappeared, leaving the project incomplete with unpaid employees, uncatalogued artifacts, a budget that was bleeding red ink and an open excavation. Rumor had it that she had fled the area to live alone in the cabin she retired to every weekend of the excavation season. The tribe attempted to cut its losses by hiring a construction firm to lay down a plastic covering over the open dig and backfill the excavation.
The Sylacauga Site lay fallow for almost thirty years when a new generation of tribal leaders resurrected the dream of a museum/park and hired Dr. Carson Callahan, a local born and bred in Sylacauga, as tribal archaeologist, to complete Sophia Townsend’s project. As a boy, Carson had often been brought to the dig by his father, who had been one of the locals hired by Sophia. He, in turn, hired Faye Longchamp-Mantooth, the wife of his childhood friend, Joe Wolf Mantooth, to consult on the project due to her past experience on similar projects. Faye and Joe were visiting Sylacauga at the request of Joe’s father, Sly, who intended, after some fifteen years, to spread the ashes of his wife, and Joe’s mother, Patricia’s remains. Faye leaped at the opportunity, in part because of the project’s intrinsic value, but also to help defray the cost of travel to Oklahoma. In addition to Faye, Carson has also hired three members of the original 1987 crew—Kenny Meadows and Carson’s father, Mickey Callahan—both local middle school teachers—and Emily Olson.
The first day on the dig proves to be ominous as a sniper opens up on Faye, Carson Callahan, and Kenny Meadows. The shooter flees as tribal Sheriff Roy Cloud answers their desperate call for help. Adding to the day’s distress, youthful members of the tribe appear to protest the project as a desecration of their heritage—even though the tribal authorities have sanctioned the project and indeed are paying the bills.
The situation deteriorates quickly. The site is re-opened the next day and as the 1987 plastic covering is withdrawn once the backfill has been removed, Emily Olson discovers and ruthlessly exposes skeletal remains—remains that may very well be those of Sophia Townsend because of the necklace found in context. Telltale signs of a skull fracture leave little doubt that foul play was involved and Sheriff Cloud quickly turns the site into a crime scene with a whole new set of protocols put in motion. The three original members of the 1987 dig must quite logically become persons of interest in the investigation and because of Carson’s familial relationship with one of them—Mickey Callahan—Roy Cloud asks Faye to serve as his archaeological consultant on the case. This becomes problematical when it comes to light that Sly Mantooth, Joe’s father, was also for a brief time a member of Sophia’s excavation crew—thus adding to the list of suspects.
The case becomes murkier yet as artifacts are discovered in context with the skeletal remains. Sophia’s 1987 site journals, plus the catalogued and uncatalogued artifacts from that time, indicate the Sylacauga site dates back to the 1830s—the dark times of the Trail of Tears when the Creek tribes, along with the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole were driven from their southeastern homelands. But these artifacts, a clay figurine and drilled pearls, look much like the Mississippian artifacts of the famed Spiro Mounds site in eastern Oklahoma—the Mississippian cultures of c. 1000 AD. If, in fact these artifacts are in situ, Sylacauga could be the farthest west extension of the Mississippian culture yet known. The artifacts would also assume greater value to looters and collectors and could supply a possible motive for the almost 30 year old murder.
Faye’s curiosity and seeking after the truth leads her into the dim past of that 1987 dig. With the aid of Sophia’s journals, she reconstructs the convoluted and sometimes tawdry relationships among and between Sophia and her crew. Passion, not archaeology, may have been the motive for Sophia’s murder. Unfortunately, Sly still remains as a credible suspect.
The mix of police procedural, archaeological context, and the psychological insights into the main players in this mystery make for a very satisfying novel. Add in the exciting and unexpected denouement—in the path of an Oklahoma tornado, no less—and Mary Anna Evans has delivered a memorable tenth Faye Longchamp mystery. Four trowels for Burials.