Avon Books, New York
February 2002 (pb)
It’s always a delight to discover a new author who can spin a good mystery tale, and it’s even better when it’s a mystery with an archaeology motif, and it’s downright wonderful when it’s the beginning of a new series. Dana Cameron, the pseudonym for a practicing East Coast archaeologist, has accomplished this hat trick with her first novel, Site Unseen, and I hope we can all look forward to a long and productive career writing Emma Fielding mysteries.
First, the plot: It’s a fairly convoluted one that begins with the discovery of a corpse close to an archaeological dig directed by Emma Fielding, a demanding and driven young assistant professor, who desperately needs success to continue her climb up the ladder of academic promotion. He might be the victim of accident or murder. There is the later death, almost certainly murder, of an old friend who is allowing Emma and her crew to excavate on her property. There is a thoroughly despicable pothunter who threatens Emma and her crew and is clearly behind the criminal activities at the site—a 17th Century English fort located along the Maine coast. Or is he?
Second, the characters: This is perhaps what sets Site Unseen apart from many first works by a new author. The plot is often engaging and even sometimes bewildering, but the characters are often one-dimensional at best. Dana Cameron has lovingly drawn interesting and sympathetic characters, both the primary and the secondary figures. Emma is a strong and admirable protagonist, but she’s also shown to be vulnerable—struggling with a commuter marriage; the death of dear friend—a death for which she feels directly responsible; and fearing that her successes in anthropology are due only to the fact that she’s the grand daughter of a man who was a scholar of Promethean reputation in the discipline. The secondary figures, whether the local sheriff, the graduate students who make up Emma’s crew, the members of the Caldwell College anthropology department (a dysfunctional bunch, if ever there was one), or the local people of coastal Maine—all are described with great care and all interact in truly human ways. There’s not a cookie cutter character in the bunch!
And third, attention to archaeological and academic detail: Dana Cameron knows her subject matter and conveys that knowledge with great deftness and often a very keen sense of humor. Two brief excerpts may demonstrate this skill:
And it was an awkward time in the semester, close enough to the beginning so that the pressures of midterm did not inspire attentiveness, and far enough along so that the initial novelty of the class had worn off. I faced rank after rank of glazed-over undergraduate faces and wondered briefly what I could do to make them love it like I did, but AN103, Introduction to Anthropology, lumbered into the tar pit and died unresisting, in spite of my best efforts to drag the beat out and resuscitate it. (p.227)
And a description of archaeology lab work with which all who have tried it can identify:
Normally lab work is something to be delayed as long as possible, because washing every one of those thousands of little pieces of ceramic and glass is the most tedious task on earth. There is never any good way to work; either the plastic washtubs are too high on the table, and you have to stand, or too low, and you have to hunch over. Fingertips inevitably become cramped from holding the artifacts tightly, scrubbed raw from brushing them, and wrinkled from being submerged in water for hours on end. Labeling the artifacts with their context coordinates is even worse, with fumes from the marking pens and the clear varnish used to protect the labels making the students dizzy, even with the windows open. (p.97)