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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Search the Shadows by Barbara Michaels

January 1, 2008

HarperPaperbacks:  New York
1988 (pb)

Barbara Michaels is one of the pen names of Barbara Mertz, author of dozens of mysteries, romance novels, supernatural tomes and a mixture of any two or all three—many of which have an archaeological theme.  She is perhaps better known by another pen name:  Elizabeth Peters, author of the wonderful Amelia Peabody series.  Ms. Mertz earned a doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and it is this background that perhaps provided the impetus for the scene, if not the plot, of Search the Shadows.

The reader is introduced to Haskell Maloney, an orphan raised by a maiden aunt in Philadelphia.  Haskell has followed in the footsteps of her late mother, Leah, by pursuing a degree in Egyptology.  Her mother studied at the prestigious University of Chicago, while Haskell stayed close to home at the equally renowned University of Pennsylvania.  Her father was killed in Vietnam before Haskell was born and her mother was lost in an automobile crash just months after giving birth to Haskell.

Haskell’s world begins to collapse when she inadvertently discovers information that leads her to believe that Kevin Maloney, her war hero father, was not, in fact, her father at all.  Her mother’s personal effects suggest to Haskell that one of her classmates or teachers at the Oriental Institute was more than likely her real father.  Determined to discover the truth about her parents, she abruptly leaves her Philadelphia lawyer fiancé and sets off on an odyssey to Chicago to figuratively excavate the artifacts of her life.  All roads lead to the Gilded Age Nazarian mansion, which houses a fabulous collection of Egyptian antiquities as well as the scholars who had, as students a generation earlier, formed the nucleus of her mother’s circle of friends, classmates and mentors.  As Haskell delves ever more deeply into the mysteries of her mother’s bohemian existence in the mid 1960s, she begins to wonder if her mother’s death in a fiery auto crash was truly an accident, and whether Stephen Nazarian, heir to the family fortune until his tragic death in an anti Viet Nam War protest, was her real father.

A series of mysterious incidents, including an arson attempt on her life, quickly demonstrates that the secrets surrounding Haskell’s parentage is of more than of passing interest to at least one individual from those past years of passion, politics and Egyptology.  Haskell discovers the answers to her quest locked in the shadowy recesses of the Nazarian Museum basement but in so doing faces a psychotic villain who will gladly kill Haskell to keep her from revealing the truth.

This is a romance/thriller with all the necessary ingredients:  a determined but vulnerable heroine, handsome men who may be protectors or killers, atmospheric surroundings, and subtly presented eroticism.  The extra edge to this otherwise rather formulaic little novel is the author’s familiarity with the study of ancient Egypt and its antiquities and her ability to weave that knowledge into the essence of the story.

This is no Peabody mystery and there is little of the Elizabeth Peters’ sense of humor on display, but it’s still a good mystery, complete with an adequately surprising denouement.  Two trowels for Search the Shadows.