Bantam Dell: New York
Barbara Cleverly is the author of the highly-regarded Joe Sandilands mysteries—a series that features the exploits of the Scotland Yard detective in post-World War I India, France and London. In this, the first of a new series, Cleverly has created a very different protagonist: Laetitia Talbot is the product of the British aristocracy who has come of age in the years following World War I. The sea change in culture brought about by the Great War has ushered in a new world for progressive young women such as Laetitia, and she has selected archaeology—a field heretofore almost completely dominated by men—as her life’s work. With the support of her Cambridge mentor, she is to direct her first excavation on the island of Crete under the general oversight of Theodore Russell, who has carried on the work of Sir Arthur Evans, the legendary archaeological expert on the prehistory of Crete. Laetitia soon learns that Russell is a demanding taskmaster, a man who recognizes no equal in the world of Cretan archaeology, and a man whose prodigious ego will not rest until he has eclipsed Evans’ reputation as the father of Minoan archaeology.
The excitement and romance of archaeology turns first to disappointment when Russell assigns Laetitia to a site off the beaten path on Mount Juktas, the supposed location of Russell’s personal obsession, the tomb of Zeus. To add insult to injury, Russell appoints William Gunning, a man who had in the past rejected Laetitia’s romantic overtures, as her co-director on this misbegotten project. But her disappointment turns to tragedy for Laetitia when she discovers the body of Theo Russell’s young wife—an apparent suicide. Or is she? Laetitia begins to doubt the efficacy of the suicide theory— for Phoebe Russell simply seemed too full of life and spirit to suddenly take her own life. Police Inspector Mariani hints at similar misgivings concerning the suicide theory, and he, along with Laetitia and William Gunning, begin to investigate the truth behind the untimely death of Phoebe Russell. When the autopsy indicates that Phoebe was pregnant—with a child that could not possibly be her husband’s—the dark secrets of Villa Europa, Theo Russell’s palatial enclave, begin to emerge.
This is a wonderfully textured novel, with fully realized characters, and a masterful touch when it comes to describing Crete and its culture in the 1920s. Cleverly also captures the world of archaeology during this period—it is, after all, the era of major discoveries, such as Tutankhamen’s tomb, that captured the imaginations of the publics of many nations. Theo Russell’s obsession with discovering the Tomb of the Greek God Zeus—he believed all mythology was ultimately based on flesh and blood reality—fits neatly into this world and also neatly ties into the tragic death of his young wife.
I look forward to the further tales of Laetitia Talbot, and although Cleverly’s novel lacks the sly humor of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, Laetitia and Amelia are clearly soul sisters and fans of Peabody should find a great deal of pleasure in Laetitia Talbot’s first adventure. Four trowels for this homage to “golden age” mysteries, for this is indeed both an archaeological puzzle and a very traditional English manor house mystery, a la Agatha Christie.