Thomas & Mercer Publishers: Las Vegas, NV
In this, A.J. Hartley’s third novel featuring Deborah Miller, erstwhile director of the Druid Hills Museum in Atlanta, the lanky and self-effacing heroine finds herself directing an archaeological dig in the northern lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula—the 15 square kilometer site of Ek’ Balam—literally, the City of the Dark Jaguar– home to Yucatec/Mayan peoples from the Pre-Classic period (c.200 AD) into the period of European colonization. In a perpetual search for financial support for her struggling museum, Deborah joined a consortium of southeastern U.S. institutions, underwritten by the Chicago-based Cornerstone Foundation and its enigmatic president, Steve Powel.
Her surprise assignment directly from Powel himself is to coordinate the Ek’ Balam dig and perhaps develop a touring exhibit based on the project finds. The touring exhibit idea, admittedly somewhere “out there” in the indefinite future is one thing, but Deborah finds herself completely unqualified to execute the rest of the plan. After all, she’s a museum person, not an archaeologist! To make matters worse, she is constantly challenged by the arrogant and imperious Princeton-based survey leader, Dr. Martin Bowerdale; even the two graduate students working the project and the twenty-four undergrads she is to train question her abilities!
The situation appears to grow even grimmer for Deborah when torrential rains create an enormous sinkhole that threatens the very continued existence of the site. But in reality, the sinkhole reveals man-made steps leading to a cavern beneath the tomb of King Ukit kan le’k tok. What is revealed beneath may constitute a momentous discovery in the world of Mayan archaeology: a second burial of a masked royal figure, complete with burial artifacts and human sacrificial remains. But most extraordinary of all is the discovery of gems, including a ruby; a carved rod of gold; and crystals containing iron and chrome—none of which should appear in a Mayan burial site!
Additional experts are quickly flown in under the auspices of the Cornerstone Foundation, and if anything, despite the extraordinary discovery, Deborah is marginalized even more. No sooner do the newcomers—Chad Rylands, a brilliant but egotistical osteologist; Krista Rayburn, a young and equally brilliant environmental archaeologist; and Marissa Stroud, a strange but highly respected epigrapher—arrive than all the grave goods, save the skeletal remains, vanish—stolen from the site. The blame falls squarely on Deborah, as the titular director of the Ek Balam project. Disaster continues to haunt the project when Eustachio Lacantun, the indigenous Ek Balam site foreman for more than thirty years, is found tortured and brutally murdered in the tomb, and Deborah is the target of a shooter as she stumbles upon the scene of carnage.
As police commandeer the site, suspecting at least one of the foreign archaeologists is the perpetrator, more surprises are forthcoming from the artifacts that had not been stolen from the tomb. Chad Rylands believes the bundled bones are a second burial, separate from and buried long after the Pre-Classic royal burial, along with a heraldic ring on the finger of a child’s hand included in the bundled remains. But the Maya had no such jewelry items! Additionally, Porfiro Aguilar, the project artifact analyst who has been working in his Valladolid-based laboratory, has conducted an extensive web search on the mysterious ruby and believes it bears a striking resemblance and has similar properties to a gem found in Lancashire, England.
Deborah follows up this tenuous lead by flying to England to seek more information on the Lancashire dig at Pendle Hill and Skipton Castle and discovers a connection between artifacts unearthed in England and the coat of arms featured on the ring on the severed hand found at Ek Balam. To further complicate the puzzle, the local history of 17th Century witch trials, seem to be inextricably tied in with the apparently twin gem stones separated by thousands of miles, as well as the history of Oliver Cromwell’s revolution. Shadowy figures stalk Deborah in Lancashire and the situation turns decidedly violent—suggesting this is more than a mere quest for Mayan or even 17th Century British artifacts.
The serpentine trail of clues that began at Ek’ Balam, then on to Lancashire, finally ends up back in the Yucatan and Deborah unravels the mystery of the burial and burial goods discovered beneath the Acropolis—but not before she nearly loses her life battling more than one villain on the heights of the Great Pyramid of Uxmal, one of the Yucatan’s most transcendent Mayan sites.
Magic, witchcraft, treasure hunting, international intrigue, and even “national security” play central roles in this entertaining romp. A.J. Hartley has written a superb thriller and this reviewer hopes we haven’t seem the last of Deborah Miller, a courageous heroine—even if she doesn’t think she’s a very good archaeologist! Four trowels for Tears of the Jaguar.