|Mary Anna Evans: Artifacts|
Pen Press (Hardcover) ISBN 1-59058-056-7
Faye Longchamp lives on the fringes of the law, or a little beyond them. She works a pothunter -- someone who digs illicitly for archaeological specimens in order to sell them on the black market. She seeks to keep body and soul together while, somehow, retaining possession of her ancestral home, Joyeuse, on Florida's Gulf of Mexico coast. Unlike many pothunters, she trained as an archaeologist, although circumstances forced her to drop out of her training before its end. Still, Professor Magda Stockard is more than eager to hire Faye for the occasional bona fide archaeological dig. At the moment Magda's team, Faye included, find themselves digging on a little archipelago called the Last Isles, offshore from Joyeuse. Meanwhile, Faye also hunts her own pots on the side.
One night, someone murders two of the college students employed on the dig. During her extramural activities, Faye discovers a skeleton dating from a few decades ago and concludes the remains are those of Abigail Williford, whose disappearance, still unsolved, became a cause célèbre of its day. Unable for obvious reasons to report the matter directly to the law, she begins to research the case, while simultaneously, thanks to the chance discovery of an old journal, researching her own origins amid liaisons between slavers and slaves.
Faye soon realizes that various local notables played a larger role in Abigail's disappearance than they ever publicly admitted. Meanwhile, members of the dig discover the graves of more murder victims. The murderer will clearly stop at nothing to avoid detection, yet Faye is driven to try to identify him before her own life becomes forfeit.
Artifacts is an extremely charming novel, and its central character -- the mixed-ancestry Faye pluckily striving to survive despite the leviathan of the state and the scheming of a murderer -- proves enormously appealing. So do some of the minor characters, notably her faithful friend Joe Wolf Mantooth, a simple-minded child-of-nature Native American. The journal extracts that pepper the text are engrossing in their depiction of the barbaric society that existed in Florida not so very long ago, when human beings depended for their very lives upon "owners" who could be either sadistic or benevolent. The depiction of Faye's emergent pride in her own ancestry, and hence in herself, is genuinely inspiring. The writing is smooth, and the tale grips from beginning to end.
The only element of Artifacts that doesn't work so well is -- oddly for a mystery novel! -- the mystery itself, whose solution becomes reasonably obvious from about the halfway mark. Yet such is the charm of all the rest that this barely matters.
Read this book. You'll enjoy it.
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