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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Burial Ground by Malcolm Shuman

October 1, 2002

Avon Books, New York
March 1998 (pb)

Several months ago I wrote a review of Margot Arnold’s first Sir Toby Glendower and Penny Spring mystery, Exit Actors, Dying. It has since occurred to me that it might be fun to review the first episodes in a number of archaeology-based mystery series—especially when there’s a shortage of new releases to review, as there is now. Such series will undoubtedly include the delightful Amelia Peabody initial entry, Crocodile on the Sandbank, Lyn Hamilton’s Xibalba Murders, and the first Indiana Jones novel—yes, Indy was featured in a series of books, some of which were quite good, in the 1990s.

Several months ago I introduced readers to Alan Graham, Malcolm Shuman’s contract archaeologist-hero in the novel, The Last Mayan. Burial Ground, published some three years earlier, was the real introduction of Shuman’s rather unassuming and somewhat un-heroic hero. Alan Graham is the proprietor of a Baton Rouge-based contract archaeology firm that seems to be terminally on the edge of bankruptcy and ruin. Yet he doggedly persists, putting up with the constant harassment of his Corps of Engineers contract officer, Bertha Bomberg aka Bertha Bombast; a rabbinical-student-turned- contract-archaeologist-assistant, David Goldman, and his tyrannical-yet-absolutely-necessary-for-survival secretary/bookkeeper Marilyn.

The mystery is a compelling one as Alan Graham is hired by a wealthy local oilman to seek out a Native American burial site that might be located on his Louisiana plantation. To complicate his life and his career, a new contract archaeologist moves into the area— tall, beautiful, blond, and Harvard-educated. Whether she is actually willing to work with Alan, as she claims, or to compete with him, as sometimes seems evident, remains an open question for much of the story.

Life then becomes very dodgey for Alan Graham as his wealthy client turns up dead, a decidedly eccentric plantation tenant goes missing, more bodies pile up, and escaped convicts hide out in the very plantation bayou that Alan and his new perhaps-to-be-trusted colleague are trudging through as they seek the lost Tunica Indian burial site.

Like many first numbers in as series, Burial Ground may not be a work of literary art, but it does introduce interesting, engaging and multi-dimensional characters. It does posit an interesting mystery. And it does hint at things to come as later Alan Graham mysteries grow in complexity and become even more interesting.