Sign up for e-News Donate
Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Undercurrents by Mary Anna Evans

June 1, 2018

Poison Pen Press:  Scottsdale, AZ
2018 (PB)

A serial killer stalks the streets of Memphis, Tennessee’s poorer neighborhoods.  Or at least that’s what contract archaeologist Faye Longchamp-Mantooth comes to believe as she is inexorably drawn into this nightmare as she innocently undertakes a cultural resources study for the State of Tennessee.  The project itself is quite straight forward:  the state envisions an expansion of camping facilities within the urban Memphis Sweetgum State Park.  The area selected by planners was the site of a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp inhabited by an all-African American work crew—Faye reflected that even the New Deal was not exempt from the odious Jim Crow laws of the South—and the goal was to avoid disturbing or destroying any historically significant remnants of the camp.  The project holds additional meaning for Faye in that she hires Jeremiah Hamilton, a local graduate student who in turns hires an excavation crew of young people from hardscrabble backgrounds who need the income and the experience on their resumes.  These young people remind Faye of her early beginnings as a struggling woman of color trying to make it in the white-dominated world of archaeology.

Two incidents occur before site work can even begin.  First, a little girl of ten or so, stealthily spies on Faye as she is prepping the site for excavation.  Faye befriends the little girl named Kali and discovers that she is something of a “free range” child, adventuring far and wide during the endless summer days, and nominally “supervised” by a great-great uncle named Laneer and his friend Sylvia, while Kali’s mother Frida works.

Then very early the next morning, as Faye prepared for the arrival of her crew, a second and much more horrific incident occurred.  Hearing a distressed voice coming from above, Faye scaled the bluff overlooking the CCC site and discovered the battered and partially buried alive body of a young woman—a young woman desperately clinging to life.  The victim proves to be Kali’s mother Frida and Faye suddenly finds herself swept up into the search for the killer, in part because of her bonding to Kali and in part because she seems to be acknowledged as an acceptable mediator between the denizens of Kali and Frida’s neighborhood and the mistrusted white police officers investigating the crime.  It is one of the strengths of this novel that author Evans raises subtle questions concerning the confluence of race and class in urban America.  While the police are looked upon with suspicion, largely due to race and authority, even Faye is held at arm’s length because of her different-ness based on her education and perceived class distinction.  Until those prejudices can be bridged, stopping the killer will prove to be very difficult.

The excavation is put on hold while the investigation proceeds and the array of suspects widens to include even members of Faye’s excavation crew.  Detective McDaniel of the Memphis homicide squad is at times skeptical of Faye’s investigative inquiries but is finally convinced that her theory that the killer has murdered before and has established a pattern of behavior that will, when puzzled out, will lead to his identity.  The manhunt is on and ultimately leads to a showdown in a cemetery with Faye and Kali almost certainly facing horrible deaths at the hands of the serial killer, who has been in their midst from the beginning!

This is an exciting and pulse-pounding addition to the Faye Longchamp mystery series.  Unlike earlier volumes, archaeology played a very minor role in the story as the hunt for the killer takes center stage.  This reviewer would like to see Faye’s future adventures incorporate the discipline of archaeology into the scheme of the plot.  Nonetheless, Undercurrents is an exciting read and a satisfying addition to the Faye Longchamp canon.  Three trowels for the eleventh volume in this superb series