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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Coffins by Deborah Dunn

January 1, 2019

Five Rivers Press:  Lexington, KY
2017 (pb)

First-time novelist Deborah Dunn has written an interesting and at times thought-provoking archaeology suspense novel that takes the historical facts of the 16th Century “Lost Colony” of Roanoke and postulates a credible sequence of events to explain the enduring mystery of the missing colonists.

The unlikely sleuth who delves into this historical puzzle is Andrea Warren, a recent M.A. in archaeology, whose participation in an excavation at Williamsburg, Virginia, has resulted in humiliation and disgrace when her whistleblowing expose of a real estate development scheme that would destroy a burial ground blows up in her face.  Colleagues and classmates turn on her and even her fiancé disavows her for fear of sullying his promising career in archaeology.

The reader soon learns that Andrea is perhaps all too familiar with life’s hard knocks.  Instead of retreating to the comforting confines of her mother’s home in Charlotte, she takes a detour to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to discover the truth behind a nightmare that has dogged her since her childhood—her father’s abandonment of her and her mother and his subsequent suicide while a 26 year old graduate student in archaeology at Eastern Carolina University.  Her mother is resigned to her quest but pleads with her not to look for “those coffins,” a reference that means nothing to Andrea, but will as the story evolves.

Her visit to the environs of her father’s youth and the nearby site of his death yield little information for Andrea but she does meet an interesting young man—another lost soul, a widower who has sought comfort in restoring historically important architecture named Scott McWilliams.  The budding friendship is interrupted when the proverbial phone call in the middle of the night summons Andrea to Charlotte and the bedside of her mother, who has suffered a massive heart attack and soon dies, but not until she directs Andrea to the attic and a trunk containing her father’s journals, field notes, correspondence and even his very ashes in an urn.

Andrea returns to the Outer Banks—and Scott—and begins in earnest to trace her father’s history and his obsession with Lost Colony of Roanoke and the mysterious coffins supposedly linked to its inhabitants.  But she soon begins to suspect that there was more than a hunt for 16th Century artifacts and a tragic suicide at play in the mid-1980s in the vicinity of Roanoke Island.  People intimately involved in the events of that tragic period begin to die off with suspicious rapidity and even local law enforcement officials look with disfavor as Andrea seems to be re-opening old wounds in the closed little communities of the Outer Banks.  The situation becomes even direr as Andrea begins to question not only the truthfulness of those few locals who have befriended her but the very essence of the story of her father’s death.  Was it perhaps murder, and not suicide after all?

The tale woven by author Dunn is both complex and satisfying.  There is a Southern Gothic element to the story as well as an archaeology mystery firmly embedded in American colonial history and brought up to present day.   The book is not without its shortcomings—several major characters lack a truly three dimensional existence and while Andrea is a well-defined heroine, her tendency towards self-pity and her mercurial temperament can be annoying.  Nonetheless I was delighted to read in the author’s notes that she is working on a sequel.   Three trowels for this first effort, The Coffins.