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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Exit Actors, Dying by Margot Arnold

April 1, 2002

Foul Play Press, Woodstock, Vermont
1988 (pb)

With no recent publications (that I know of) of archaeology mysteries/thrillers, I was forced to my bookshelves to find a subject for this month’s review. By doing so, I felt like I had run into some old friends when I happened upon Exit Actors, Dying, the first in the Penny Spring and Sir Toby Glendower mystery series, written by Margot Arnold.

The series includes twelve volumes and presents readers with an even dozen wonderful mysteries of the traditional “cozy” type. The beauty of these little stories (most are about 200 pages in length) is less in plotline than it is in characterization and local color. A few take place in New England and the rest in exotic locations that include France, Italy, Scotland and so on. But the stories ultimately hinge on the two protagonists, Penny Spring and Sir Toby.

Penny is a 50s-something New England-born anthropologist (Ph.D. from Columbia) who is, during the course of the series, a lecturer at Oxford University. She has done fieldwork in the Marquesas, East and South Africa, Uzbekistan, India, and among a variety of Native American cultures in the U.S. Her publications include Sex in the South Pacific (1957), The Position of Women in Pastoral Societies (1962), Moslem Women (1970), among others.

Sir Toby is a Welshman, born a few years before Penny, who earned his doctorate in archaeology from Oxford. As Exit Actors, Dying unfolds, he has participated in more than 30 major archaeological digs and his publications include the very popular What Not to Do in Archaeology (1960) and What to Do in Archaeology (1970). He was knighted in 1977.

Toby and Penny seem to share a truly platonic relationship, based on mutual respect, friendship and shared intellectual interests. They also quarrel like any happily married couple and Penny particularly takes exception to Toby’s love for the fruit of the vine! The relationship is lovingly and subtly developed by Margot Arnold through out the twelve volumes, and would be a joy to read about even if there were no mysteries to solve!

In brief, Exit Actors, Dying finds Penny and Toby touring ancient Greek sites in modern day Turkey. On the stage of a beautifully preserved amphitheatre, Penny literally stumbles over the corpse of a beautiful young woman dressed in the costume of an ancient Greek. She becomes instantly aware that she is being observed by someone standing at the top of the amphitheatre — a huge figure clad in the battle dress of a Roman legionnaire! What follows is an almost keystone cops-type mystery that includes disappearing corpses, the filming of a movie entitled, “The Travels of Telemachus,” (that seems destined for immediate viewing on Mystery Science Theatre 2000), looted artifacts and the age old question, “Well, I wonder who is sleeping with whom?” It’s a wonderfully light story and a great beginning for a series of books of which I am very fond.