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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Plague Maiden by Kate Ellis

September 1, 2004

Piatkus Publisher Ltd, London
2004 (hc)

In this, the eighth “Wesley Peterson murder mystery,” author Kate Ellis shows herself to be in top form. If her ploy of linking mysterious happenings from the ancient past with contemporary crime would seem to contain the potential for repetition and tired clichés, she has by no means fallen into those traps yet.

The archaeology centers on the excavation of church property that is the desired site for a new supermarket (yes, the Walmart-ization of rural England is a reality). Under the direction of archaeologist Neil Watson, friend and former college roommate of detective Wesley Peterson, the crew begins to unearth one body after another and the haphazard disposal of the bodies would indicate that they are in the midst of a 14th Century “plague pit”—not the ideal location for opening a new grocery store.

Meanwhile, the local police officers in the fictional Devon town of Tradmouth find themselves overwhelmed with criminal activity, both old and new. New evidence in the 12-year-old case of a murdered vicar (assigned to the same church where Neil and his crew are digging) would strongly indicate that an innocent man was sent to prison for that crime. At the same time, an apparently deranged domestic terrorist carries out a veiled threat of bioterrorism against the supermarket chain that wishes to build a new store where Neil and company are excavating. The incidents of foul play continue apace when Neil’s crew discovers, among the plague bit burials, the body of young woman who had gone missing at about the same the vicar was killed more than a decade earlier.

With great flair and imagination, Kate Ellis brings together these events and crimes separated by centuries, decades and days into a neat cat’s cradle of criminal detection.

I have, as is probably evident, grown very fond of the Kate Ellis mysteries and I wish they were more available here in the United States. If I could change one element of her Wesley Peterson series, it would be to use real cities and locations in Devon rather than the fictionalized ones she employs. She has freely admitted that Tradmouth is based on Dartmouth, Morbay on Torbay, Bloxham on Brixham, etc. Using the real locations, even if she needed to rearrange some geography for the sake of plotting, would lend an air of verisimilitude to this otherwise wonderful archaeology mystery series.