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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Shining Skull by Kate Ellis

November 1, 2008

Piatkus Books Ltd: London, UK
2007 (pb)

In this, the eleventh “Wesley Peterson Murder Mystery,” Kate Ellis continues what I think is one of the truly outstanding mystery/archaeology series that can be found on bookseller shelves today. Unfortunately, those booksellers are in the United Kingdom, and it’s still necessary to order through a vendor like Amazon.com (USA or UK) to obtain these books. Given the pound/dollar exchange rate, it can cost a small fortune to have even a paperback shipped to the US.

But having vented my frustrations regarding the obtaining of these fine novels, I will go on and state unequivocally that The Shining Skull is the best entry thus far in this very fine series. Kate Ellis does not depart from the formula she has so successfully used in the past: introducing a contemporary mystery (usually one or more rather heinous crimes of violence investigated by Detective Inspector Wesley Peterson) and at the same time following the latest archaeological excavation of Peterson’s college friend Neil Watson. Inevitably there are threads of inquiry that tie together the world of present-day crimes and the ancient world that Neil investigates. Many authors use this convention—some quite successfully—but I believe Kate Ellis does it better and with more sophistication than any other.

The Shining Skull opens in 1976 with the kidnapping young Marcus Fallbrook of Derenham, Devon. A ransom note is sent, the money is paid, but Marcus is never seen again—at least not until thirty years later when he shows up at his wealthy half-brother’s doorstep. Is he truly the long-lost Marcus or a fraud? DNA tests would indicate that he is indeed who he says he is. Just as Marcus is returning—seemingly from the dead—pop star Leah Wakefield is kidnapped from her home. A ransom note is received by her distraught parents, and the police, including Wesley Peterson, are brought into the case. Early investigations uncover a disturbing set of circumstances: Not only does the kidnapping of Leah Wakefield eerily mimic that of Marcus Fallbrook three decades earlier, but the ransom note is written on the same stationery as that used in the Fallbrook case, but the wording of the two demands is nearly identical. Could the Fallbrook kidnapper, after nearly thirty years, be back in business?

An apparently unrelated case is also under investigation by Wesley and his colleagues—that of an obviously disturbed individual who disguises himself as a taxi driver, entraps young blonde women in his cab, cuts off lengths of their hair, and then releases them, unharmed—at least until one unfortunate young woman is nearly stabbed to death by the Barber’s (that’s his press nickname) scissors.

Meanwhile Neil Watson and his crew from the County Archaeological Unit are excavating and moving nineteenth century burials from a churchyard graveyard in advance of an addition to the church proper. One of the burials presents Neil and his crew with a tantalizing mystery in that a relatively young woman was interred in the same coffin with a young boy. In researching the church records and local archives, Neil discovers 19th century documents and correspondence that tell of unusual circumstances in the parish of St. Merion’s, Stoke Beeching in the early 1800s. There were tales of domestic intrigue among the parish elite, a child prodigy who suddenly lost his unique abilities, and a self-ordained priestess, Joan Shiner, who attracted local adherents—as well as vehement opponents– to her cult.

Ellis masterfully brings these varied and disparate threads—some of which are separated by more than 200 years—together in a most satisfying denouement. Four trowels for this little gem of British mystery fiction!