Francis Pryor is a British archaeologist who has participated in the popular BBC television series Time Team and has written several non-fiction bestsellers, including Britain BC, Britain AD and Britain in the Middle Ages. He has now turned his talents to archaeology fiction with The Lifers’ Club, and the results are most impressive.
Alan Cadbury is an itinerant and sometimes iconoclastic contract archaeologist, who has spent much of his professional career directing excavation in his beloved Fens country, the 1,500 square mile marshland spread across eastern England. While working a site near Peterborough, replete with bronze age burials, iron age and Roman-era farms, fields and houses, he comes upon a two-week old newspaper—he is obviously more interested in events a thousand years ago as opposed to two weeks in the past—that reports the conviction of a young Turkish man named Ali Kabul for the “honor killing” of his sister Sofia and his sentencing to Blackfen Prison. The killing was to have taken place seven years earlier at Flax Hole Depot. Alan and a crew had been working at the depot at the time of the killing and he recalled a youngster named Ali who eagerly helped on the dig, quickly picking up on the skills and nuances of archaeological excavation, and his sister Sofia.
Alan cannot believe that Ali could possibly be guilty of such a heinous crime, despite the report that tells of his confession of the murder. In fact, it is the confession alone that seals the conviction for no corpse was ever discovered. Alan contacts an old acquaintance, now Detective Chief Inspector Richard Lane of the Leicestershire CID, whose division was responsible for the conviction. The two had become friends years earlier when Alan had helped present a university class in forensic archaeology and Lane had been a student. Lane is skeptical of Alan’s belief in Ali’s innocence, in great part because, if correct, it could cast a cloud over his police officers. Alan perseveres, however, and using his connection to DCI Lane, he convinces the prison warden to allow him to teach an introductory archaeology course to a group of inmates informally known as the “Lifers’ Club,” because its members are all serving very long sentences. Alan hopes that Ali will avail himself of this opportunity and is delighted to see the young man—now a convicted killer—in the class. But it is a far different Ali than the eager young archaeology enthusiast Alan recalled from seven years ago. He is aloof and either indifferent or disdainful of Alan’s attempts to “help” him. Could Alan have been wrong about Ali after all?
What follows is an insightful and erudite description of Alan’s journey into the complex dynamics of family in an immigrant culture as well as the forensic investigation of crimes in the present and the past. His persistence in seeking out the truth at all costs nearly costs him his life on several occasions as well as jeopardizing the safety of a woman he has grown to love. Friendships are put to the test and the truths that Alan bring to light are almost more than he can emotionally hear.
While the mystery at the heart of this story is well-developed and imaginative, it is the archaeology that sets this novel apart from others in the genre. Francis Pryor’s description of the life of a contract archaeologist—its triumphs as well as its disappointments—is marvelous. The reader can almost literally share in the cold, the incessant rain, the muck and mud that define excavating in the Fens. Every sentence and paragraph dealing with archaeology and excavation in the Fen Country echoes of realism.
Four trowels for Francis Pryor’s The Lifers’ Club. It is simply a wonderful read!