Avon Books, New York
October 2001 (pb)
It’s always a treat when a new Alan Graham mystery hits the bookshelves. Malcolm Shuman’s rather quiet, unassuming non-Indiana Jones-ish protagonist has become one of my favorite fictional heroes. Alan Graham is a contract archaeologist who owns his own small cultural resources business in Louisiana. The previous four mysteries in this series have all taken place in the Southeast of the United States and all have been good yarns built on a framework of solid descriptions of archaeological fieldwork. I’ve heard that MVAC’s contract archaeologists have enjoyed reading these mysteries and especially identify with Alan Graham’s woes at the hands of his nemesis in the Corps of Engineers contracts office—a strong-willed bureaucrat by the name of Bertha Bomber (or La Bombast,as Graham often refers to her) who never finds Graham’s technical reports quite up to her high performance standards!
The fifth entry in this series, The Last Mayan, is quite a departure from the earlier novels. Alan Graham temporarily leaves the bayou country behind for the jungles of southern Quintana Roo in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. We learn that Graham’s academic specialty, before turning to contract archaeology was as a Mayanist and he has returned to an area that he had studied some fifteen years before to participate in the excavation of a newly discovered Mayan site. As in the previous Alan Graham mysteries, Malcolm Shuman continues to demonstrate considerable skill in portraying a sense of place. I found his descriptions of the areas around Chetumal and Bacalar, both very close to the Belize border, to be very poignant. Shuman describes how those areas (as well as others in the Yucatan) had changed since Graham’s last visit ten to fifteen years earlier—how the introduction of modern technology in both communications and even archaeological research and restoration was changing the face of the countryside and the lives of the people. Having traveled in that part of the Yucatan some twelve years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder if I might feel the same bittersweet emotions that the fictional Alan Graham did.
As always, Shuman spins a good tale of archaeological mystery—this time revolving around several murders that may be linked to the presence of jungle dwelling drug runners. Or the murders may be linked more directly to archaeological theory—specifically the presence of a crewmember who espouses the heretical theory of diffusionism, i.e., the presence of non-Amerindian people in the Western Hemisphere before Columbus! Shuman, who holds a doctorate in anthropology from Tulane University, has a bit of fun exploring the possibility of academic feuds as a potential motive for murder.
You can’t go wrong with an Alan Graham archaeology mystery when it comes to light, enjoyable reading. Pick up The Last Mayan, or even better yet, begin with the first entry in the series, The Meriwether Murder and work your way up to The Last Mayan.