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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Shell Game by Sarah R. Shaber

October 1, 2016

By Sarah R. Shaber
St. Martin’s Press:  New York City
2007 (HC)

History Professor Simon Shaw’s workaday world at Kenan College is shattered when his colleague Sophie Berelman and department chairman Walker Jones wait for him to complete his lecture and then inform him that his best friend, archaeologist David Morgan was found in his home, brutally murdered.  David Morgan was not only an adjunct faculty member at Kenan, a small liberal arts college located in Raleigh, North Carolina, but also worked for Office of the State Archaeologist of North Carolina.   From preliminary reports it would seem that Simon’s friend had been attacked unawares as he worked at his computer, his head caved in by a blunt object, while his two dogs lay drugged in the back yard, apparently in an effort to insure privacy while the crime was committed.

While friends and colleagues, including his past lover Julia McGloughlin, try very hard to comfort Simon in his grief, it is only the realization that Morgan had named him his executor and his resolve to help the police to solve the murder.  Simon had been successful in several earlier cases, in which his talents as a self-styled forensic historian had been brought to bear in cooperation with the police, often in the person of friend, Detective Sergeant Otis Gates.  But in this particular case, Detective Gates warns him off, wisely reminding Simon that he is much too close to the victim to view the situation dispassionately and that he should work through his feelings of grief (and perhaps even some guilt) by faithfully carrying out the duties David Morgan had requested he fulfill—that of estate executor.

For the most part Simon concurs with the detective as Gates narrows his focus to two possibilities:  the less likely being a badly bungled home invasion/burglary and the more likely scenario that David Morgan’s sister Denise McGrath, the financially strapped mother of three little boys and the wife of a husband recently and permanently invalided in an automobile accident, killed him to inherit, as his only relative, an estate surprisingly large for a bachelor academic.  Simon resists this theory, simply unable to accept the possibility of fratricide—even if Denise rather unlikeable, ostentatiously pious gold digger!

But Simon does stumble upon another line of inquiry that he, as an academic, finds to be quite intriguing.  David Morgan had been named by the state’s governor to a task force to address a thorny problem that all canny politicians would want to steer clear of.  Recently, UNC-Chapel Hill archaeologist Lawrence Mabry and his graduate assistant Martha Dunn had unearthed the remains of Native American dubbed Uwharrie Man in the Uwharrie National Forest.  What made the find so spectacular was the carbon dating (14,000 BP) and the associated tools strongly suggesting a pre-Clovis site—the first such find in North Carolina—and another piece of evidence—along with such noted sites as Monte Verde and Meadowcroft—for the pre-Clovis advocates within the ranks of American archaeologists to wage intellectual battle with those colleagues who argued for Clovis as the first peoples to inhabit the Americas.

A controversy quickly developed between the academic community that wished to study and scientifically analyze the skeletal remains and the Native American community that wished to reinter Uwharrie Man in sacred ground.  The committee included Mabry (defending his own interests and those of his beautiful and enigmatic grad assistant Martha Dunn) and Henry Klett, Director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, representing the former view; Brenda Lambert, head of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, and Brad Lowery, member of the Lumbee Tribal Council and erstwhile candidate for Congress, militantly supporting the latter position.  David Morgan would have supplied the tie-breaking vote in this fierce contest, but his judgement at the time of his death was unknown to the other committee members, and his copious notes, their existence verified by everyone on the committee, were missing!

Despite Otis Gates’ predisposition to “follow the money,” i.e., Morgan’s bequests to his sister, Simon understands the pressures and demands of academic life—the drive for reputation, publications and discoveries to ensure academic survival—and the deeply-held passions of Native Americans as they struggle to protect and endangered and disappearing patrimony.  He believes the key to his friend’s brutal murder lies with Uwharrie Man.

What follows is a neatly conceived whodunit, replete with enough false leads and red herrings to pique the interests of any mystery novel aficionado, and an engaging and believable cast of characters, chief of whom is the loveable doofus of a protagonist, Simon Shaw.  Three trowels for Shell Game.