By Aileen G. Baron
Pemberly Press: Austin, TX
For twenty years, Aileen G. Baron taught classes in archaeology and anthropology at the California State University-Fullerton after earning her Ph.D. well into her adulthood. Her career took her to many exotic parts of the world, including a year in residence as an NEH scholar at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem. She retired in her mid-70s and began a second career as the author of a number of mystery novels, all of which had an archaeology theme embedded in their plots. She passed away in early 2016, just short of her 92nd birthday. I was delighted recently to learn that she had completed a final novel shortly before her death and Return of the Swallows was published posthumously earlier this year.
The illicit trafficking of antiquities and the unholy alliance of looters, collectors and museums is a theme that runs through a number of Dr. Baron’s fictional works. In this tightly-written, cleverly-plotted work, archaeologist Tamar Saticoy is portrayed as a young scholar who harbors a near-pathological hatred of those who illicitly trade in the patrimony of indigenous peoples, both abroad and at home in the United States. We learn that her intolerance is more than justified because her husband Alex had been brutally killed by esteleros (looters of Mayan stelae) in the Yucatan.
But her present assignment appears to be quite benign: she and her middle-aged graduate assistant and elder of the indigenous Juaneno peoples, Mario Portola, have been contracted to excavate and work on the restoration of a burnt wall at the Great Stone Church at the San Juan Capistrano Mission in Southern California. The excavation unexpectedly exposes the charred remains of a human being. Are the remains historic? Juaneno? Spanish? Or of more recent vintage?
Concurrently, Tamar is drawn into a web of intrigue as a cache of ancient Thai artifacts are purchased by a local museum—a cache with at best a sketchy provenience—and she is asked to help interpret the collection.
At the same time, a former colleague, Haskell Gilroy, who is an expert on Thai antiquities, is scheduled to chair a session on the protection of cultural property at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), which is to meet in Anaheim. Gilroy becomes seriously ill at the conference, falling into a coma, and she learns from an old acquaintance—an Interpol agent—that Gilroy was investigating looted sites in Thailand for Interpol. He beseeches her to continue Gilroy’s endeavors in Thailand. Urged on by another Interpol agent—a Thai national who is investigating looted Thai antiquities in Orange County—Tamar reluctantly flies to Thailand and learns just how deadly serious the business of antiquities trafficking can be when she barely escapes that exotic land with her life.
Returning to the United States, Tamar continues to seek answers to the enigma of the looted Thai antiquities—only to find that the answers lie back at the Mission at San Juan Capistrano and the burnt remains of the mystery victim she and Mario had unearthed.
Return of the Swallows is a complex and satisfying puzzle that also serves as something of a summation of the career of Aileen G. Baron. There are evocative descriptions of exotic locales she undoubtedly frequented—the Israeli wilderness, the streets of Bangkok and the jungles of upcountry Thailand, and the back country of the Yucatan.
Four trowels for Return of the Swallow.