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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Way, the Truth and the Dead by Francis Pryor

August 1, 2019

Unbound Publishing:  London
2017 (HC)

In this, his second mystery novel (after 2014’s The Lifers’ Club, Francis Pryor re-introduces the reader to his itinerant contract archaeologist protagonist, Alan Cadbury.  The action returns to Cadbury’s beloved Fen Country in eastern England, when Detective Chief Inspector Richard Lane is summoned to investigate the gory death of archaeologist Stanley Beaton in the Mill Cut at Fursey Estate.  Lane discovers that the dead man—a victim of accident, suicide or murder?—was an old friend of Alan Cadbury, with whom Lane had worked an earlier case, and he asks for Cadbury’s help in answering the questions raised by the mysterious death.

Stan Beaton had been hired by the Cripps family—brothers Sebastian and John, their father the Third Baronet Arthur Cripps of Fursey, and the brothers’ wives—to conduct an extensive archaeological survey of the estate in anticipation of further commercial development of their lands.  The Cripps family, once a dominant political and social force in the county, has had its wealth and prestige chipped away over the decades by death taxes and the forces of modernity, to the point where the family now looks to heritage and eco-tourism as a means to make ends meet.  Hence, Stan Beaton’s survey to add the appeal of archaeology tourism to the estate as well as providing the necessary clearances for other kinds of commercial development.  While attending the Cripps family memorial for Stan Beaton, Alan Cadbury manages to insinuate himself into the Fursey Estate family by agreeing to continue and complete the archaeological work begun by Stan Beaton, thus allowing him to observe the dynamics of the Cripps family and any possible connection between Stan’s death and the archaeological survey.  Complicating Alan’s multiple investigations is the addition of reality television to the Fursey project; the popular “Test Pit Challenge” production will do live programming from the site, a first for the archaeology-themed TV series.

What follows is a fascinating treatment of landscape archaeology at Fursey—the ancient fenlands have been inhabited from the Iron Age through the Roman occupation and subsequent “Post-Roman” or less favorably termed the “Dark Ages” to the present—against the background of Alan’s investigations of Stan Beaton’s death.  He discovers that Stan’s is not the first mysterious death at Fursey—perhaps giving substance to the local whispers concerning the “Cripps Curse—and continues to include one of the Cripps brothers.

It is a complex mystery with complex motives that reflect contemporary British social stresses and strains as once formidable elements of a hereditary landed gentry are squeezed into near irrelevance by the forces of modernity.

But what really distinguishes The Way, the Truth and the Dead (and the earlier The Lifers’ Club) is the rich detail Francis Pryor provides of both the archaeological landscape of the Fens and the excavation methods and techniques (and technology) employed by Alan Cadbury and his crew.  Much of the novel’s 500+ pages are given over to these technical archaeological matters, expressed in readable layman’s terms, and they are a delight to read and as such lend great credibility to the total work.  Francis Pryor’s knowledge of British archaeology is vast and his years of work with British Television’s Channel 4 “Time Team” add a depth of knowledge and experience to even the “Test Pit Challenge” elements of the novel.

Four very enthusiastic trowels for Francis Pryor’s second Alan Cadbury mysteries.  Here’s hoping there will be many more!