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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Death Among the Fossils by Isadore Durant

September 1, 2016

University of New Mexico Press:  Albuquerque, NM
1999 (HC)

Bob Shafer was a celebrated paleoanthropologist, noted for his excavation of early hominids in East Africa, and published in all the prestigious journals of his field.  He was also arrogant, unscrupulous, and thoroughly disliked by many of his colleagues.  Nonetheless, it came as a surprise to all when he failed to show for a scheduled debate between himself and his most celebrated competitor, David Pierce, on their opposing views of human evolution, at the 1986 meeting of the 3rd Paleoanthropological Conference, hosted by the African Republic of Asalia.  The debate was to revolve about Shafer’s discovery the previous field season at the Batchilok Formation of a fossil that put in question Pierce’s view of a direct line descent from Australopithecus to genus homo.

Not only did Shafer fail to show up for the debate, but to all practical purposes he seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth.  With the passage of time, Asalian law enforcement authorities, led by the enigmatic and reputedly pitiless attorney general Ezekiel Thanatu, assumed the famed paleoanthropologist was dead—whether by accident or by murder could not be ascertained.

In 1987 American graduate student Cynthia Cavallo is given the opportunity of a lifetime:  because of her undergraduate experience as an archaeology major and her superb graduate work in paleoanthropology, she is recommended by her advisor at San Felipe State University to assist a field expedition into the back country of Asalia in search of mammal and perhaps even hominid fossils.  She finds herself immersed in the continuing mystery of Bob Shafer’s disappearance a year earlier.  Almost without exception, the people she finds herself working with were in one way or another intimately involved with Shafer—and all seem to have had ample reason to want to see him dead.  To her dismay she learns that her advisor, Melanie Baine, was the scorned lover of Shafer; Balebe Thanatu, an Asalian Fulbright Scholar and Cynthia’s best friend, was forced by Shafer to falsify the fossil discovery at Batchilok; David Pierce’s career might have been destroyed by the existence of that find; David’s aunt  Anthea, the grande dame of African paleoanthropology, was viciously attacked in the pages of a professional journal article Shafer authored; and nearly everyone else she works with had motive and means, if not always the opportunity to kill Shafer.  Even Attorney General Ezekiel Thanatu, Balebe’s father, had reason to “disappear” the hated scientist!

Isadore Durant wrote a cunning mystery novel, replete with clues for the reader to chew on, and the requisite number of red herrings to throw him or her off the scent.  The whodunit is set within the context of the de-colonization of sub-Saharan Africa, and all the complexities that suggests, and against the background of paleoanthropological fieldwork, rendered with great integrity and authenticity.  The feeling of verisimilitude might have been enhanced had the author not created fictional African countries, such as Barbore and Asalia, and its capital Wangara, and the fictional San Felipe State University, but this is a small and insignificant criticism of this fine novel.

Written at the end of the last century, Death among the Fossils appears to be the only work of fiction written by Isadore Durant, which is a pity, for it certainly earned its four trowels.