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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Catacombs by Mary Anna Evans

December 1, 2019

Poisoned Pen Press:  Naperville, IL
2019 (PB)

Early in 20th Century America, a virulent strain of anti-Chinese sentiment swept throughout the United States.  In Oklahoma City, this hostility literally drove this immigrant group underground.  A network of tunnels linked living quarters and workplaces beneath downtown Oklahoma City, thus providing relative safety to the beleaguered Chinese as they stayed out of sight of the nativists spewing hatred above-ground.  This history provides the back-drop to the 12th entry in author Mary Anna Evans’ continuing saga of archaeologist Faye Longchamp-Mantooth.

Faye and her husband Joe Mantooth have traveled to Oklahoma City to participate in archaeologist Carson Callahan’s Oklahoma Conference for the Study and Celebration of Indigenous Arts, to be hosted at the historic Gershwin Hotel in mid-town OKC.  Among the distinguished presenters will be Joe himself, who will demonstrate and lecture on flint-knapping, a skill he has honed to an exquisite art-form over the years; also on the program will be Cully Mantooth, a long-time star of Hollywood western movies, a skilled creator of authentic Native American flutes and distant kin to Joe.  A native of Oklahoma City, Cully as not returned since escaping its confines as a very young man.

The excitement and anticipation of this seminal gathering is shattered in one blinding flash as a bomb is detonated in the lobby of the Gershwin Hotel.  Among the injured are Faye and Cully but it is quickly determined that the only fatality is the bomber himself.  Because the memory of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building lives on, the FBI mobilized instantly investigate this latest horror.  In addition to the damage done to the hotel lobby, the blast also opened a portal to the subterranean tunnels and habitation areas of the circa 1920s Chinese immigrants.  Evidence seems to indicate a link between the bomber and the underground city—especially a room decorated with elaborately artistic murals and a recurring exhortation: “evil must be obliterated.”  Even more disturbing is the discovery of the bodies of three young boys, wrapped in swaddling blankets, in the corner of the mural room.  Because Faye had assisted in an earlier FBI investigation in Oklahoma, the agent in charge requests Faye’s help in investigating the underground crime scene.  Archaeologists are often likened to detectives—each taking small clues and bits of evidence to create a picture of the past or to solve a crime.  Faye is literally asked by the FBI to do this and to interpret the painted room.

What follows is a masterful telling of Faye’s investigations and the stunning revelations she unearths deep beneath Oklahoma City.  It is not only the ill-fated bomber who has deep and dark secrets concealed in the underground city.  The drama intensifies to an excruciating level as Faye fights her way into the claustrophobic catacombs, desperately struggling to escape the real killer.

While archaeology per se plays a very limited role in this Faye Longchamp novel, Catacombs is a very satisfying addition to the Faye Longchamp series and easily earns four trowels for Faye’s most recent adventure.