Poisoned Pen Press, Scottsdale, Arizona
August 2005 (hc)
In my review of Mary Anna Evans’ first novel, I noted that one of life’s true pleasures was the discovery of a new and talented writer and his/her first novel. I can now add a codicil to that observation and that is that’s another great pleasure when that new author has a second novel that is a worthy successor to the first. That is the way I feel about Mary Anna Evan’s second Faye Longchamp mystery, Relics.
Faye continues to be a heroine/protagonist wrapped in mystery. Her struggle to keep her ancestral swamp mansion (described in Artifacts), her biracial identity, her status as a non-traditional student of archaeology, and her ambiguous relationship top her friend Joe Wolf Mantooth – all of these elements are artfully combined to portray a young woman at times very confident of her abilities and at other times torn by self-doubt; at times suspicious of authority and at other times desperately needing the structure that authority can bring to her life.
Faye has been assigned by her advisor to undertake the archaeological phase of a multi-disciplinary National Institutes of Health-funded study of the Sujosa of rural east central Alabama. The Sujosa, a fictional population patterned after the real-life Melungeon and Redbone populations, are an isolated ethnic group whose ancestry has been lost to history. Long ignored by “official” America, they have suddenly become of great interest due to the accidental discovery that they may in their genetic makeup harbor a formidable immune system, that apparently includes immunity to AIDS and other malevolent disease strains. Hence the NIH-funded “Sujosa Genetic History and Rural Assistance Project,” that includes geneticists, linguists, oral historians, education specialist and physicians, as well as an archaeological crew headed up by Faye and Joe Wolf Mantooth, her right-hand man.
Faye and oral historian Carmen Martinez quickly become friends and allies as they just as quickly face off against Project Director, Andrews Raleigh, a humorless, self-important martinet, who has badly botched the start of the archeological phase of the project even before Faye’s arrival. Faye and Carmen soon find that they-and quite possibly the entire Sujosa project-are looked upon with great hostility by the reclusive Sujosas, who have always harbored suspicion towards “outsiders” to their little valley community. Carmen’s tragic death in a house fire is at once suspicious and the amassed forensic evidence begins to clearly paint a picture of a ruthless homicide. But the easy assumption that this is a case of a murderous Sujosa killing a nosy “outsider” is quickly put in question when one of the community’s well-loved youngsters is also killed. Faye’s sense of justice and her growing respect for the beleaguered people of this isolated valley draw her closer to the answer to seemingly unconnected crimes and occurrences, and closer to a diabolical killer who would most willingly add Faye to the list of victims.
Author Evans’ plot is sophisticated and complex-bringing together threads of ethnic history, art history, forensic science and archaeology-that require all of Faye’s intellectual talents to solve, and thereby helping Faye gain confidence in herself as a scientist and a student of human nature.
In addition to the mystery and its ultimate solution, Mary Anna Evans continues what I hope will be pattern in future Fay Longchamp novels: the posing of ethical questions that are often overlooked in books, whether fiction or non-fiction, on archaeology. In Artifacts, we discovered that Faye was a pothunter, a practice that is anathema to the archaeological profession. But Evans dispassionately helps the reader to understand why Faye has found it necessary to commit this “crime” against the discipline she loves. As readers we can agree or disagree with Faye, but we are forced to consider the question. In much the same way, Evans forces us to see archaeological investigation (as well as other forms of research on human history and behavior) from the standpoint of those people perhaps unfortunate to live on or near archaeological sites or are members of a group “worth” studying. Is it so difficult to understand the hostility of the Sujosa toward people who come to “dig up their privies” or people who write down their old stories or who is related to whom and “who is sleeping with who”? These are questions worthy of asking and worthy of reflection. Mary Anna Evan weaves a good mystery and asks some questions that need to be asked.
3 ½ trowels for a worthy successor to Artifacts. I’m reserving all four trowels for the next Faye Longchamp mystery!