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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Avalon Chanter by Lillian Stewart Carl

February 1, 2016

Five Star Publishing:  New York
2014 (HC)

The mythos of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere live again in Lillian Stewart Carl’s eighth Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron mystery, The Avalon Chanter.  This series has been a guilty pleasure for years, but this is the first to incorporate archaeology as a major component of the plot—thus giving me a rationale to review it.

Jean Fairbairn, American born historian and journalist with the Glasgow-based Great Scot magazine and her husband, retired Chief Inspector Alasdair Cameron, now operative with “Protect and Survive,” a more security-oriented version of English Heritage, have traveled into the Borderlands of Northumberland and the island of Farnaby, near the more famous Lindisfarne, to write up the excavations of respected British archaeologist, Maggie Lauder.  Maggie has called a press conference to mark the opening of a tomb unearthed in Farnaby Priory—a tomb that promises to yield a spectacular and historically significant find.  These claims could likely be true because this is an historic landscape where Romans, Celts, Britons, Picts, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Scotsmen and Englishmen fought with and against each other for millennia.  And this is also a land steeped in Arthurian legend, with nearby Bambaugh Castle identified as the home of Lancelot.

Jean and Alasdair are set back on their heels, however, when they learn the press conference—and the public opening of the tomb—have been cancelled by Maggie.  A police launch, bearing Constable Edwin Crawford docks at Farnaby just as Jean and Alasdair arrive by ferry, and the three are reluctantly ushered to the priory tomb site by Maggie’s daughter Tara.  For Maggie has indeed opened the tomb, only to find the remains of a corpse, not a thousand years old or more, but likely no more than fifty!  Beneath the body is a chanter, the clarinet-like pipe that, along with the bag and drone pipes, constitutes a set of bagpipes.  This telltale clue leads a distraught and near-hysterical Maggie Lauder to believe the body is that of her father!

While Jean and Alasdair realize this is a case for the local constabulary, they are nonetheless drawn into the murky and often tragic history of the Lauder family in its half century presence on Farnaby Island—of Wat Lauder’s dream to establish a school for traditional music on the island with his wife Elaine, a literary scholar enthralled by the feminist aspects of Arthurian legend, and their little daughter Maggie; of Wat’s stormy temper and rage at Elaine’s real or imagined unfaithfulness; of Maggie’s alienation from Wat and his untimely death; of Elaine’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes crazed Arthurian scholarship and her descent into dementia and Maggie’s subsequent return to the island to care for her mother.  All of this history unfolded to the backdrop of Maggie’s involvement in the violent death of a lover some twenty years earlier—a crime she may have committed but was found innocent to the dismay of many.

Maggie had returned to Farnaby Island to care for her mother, find peace of mind and to conduct an excavation at Farnaby Priory that would validate her mother’s theories that Farnaby was the Avalon of legend but that it was the burial of an historic Guinevere, not Arthur, but in so doing stirred up dark passions in her family’s past, a cold case murder from forty years earlier and murderous violence in the present.

The Avalon Chanter is a complex and satisfying mystery set in the enchanted Borderlands, told by a storyteller gifted in spinning a tale of suspense with a touch of the supernatural.  Composing beautifully evocative descriptions of settings are among Ms. Carl’s many strengths as a writer—from landscapes to seascapes to  vivid depictions of the forbidding fog-shrouded island and its ghostly priory.

This is great reading for the proverbial dark and stormy night!  Three trowels for The Avalon Chanter.