Crime Fiction Alphabet: A is for Archaeology

It seemed like an omen that the week I was deliberating over whether or not to participate in the crime fiction alphabet meme this year I would be reading two crime fiction books which both happen to feature an archaeologist. And so it was decided, I will participate in the meme (at least semi-regularly though I don’t promise to complete all letters) and I will write my posts about the themes, sub-genres and plot elements that crop up regularly in the crime fiction I love.

I have a sneaking suspicion that archaeologists are over-represented in crime fiction, given that I don’t run across them in real life nearly as often as I do in crime fiction. Why does the profession lends itself to inclusion in this genre far more than say laundrette manager or dentist? I guess it is because the profession itself already has an air of mystery and romance about it. What child hasn’t fantasized about getting dirty and digging things up for a living? Or is that just me?

These are the archaeologists I can remember meeting in my crime fiction reading, please leave a comment with the names of any more you know of that I might need to investigate.

The first archaeologist I came across in crime fiction was Amelia Peabody, who since 1975 has starred in 19 adventures set in Egypt/Africa/the Middle East. The books by Elizabeth Peters are a mixture of historical fiction, amateur sleuthing and the discovering of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Crocodile on the Sandbank introduces us to the force of nature that is Amelia Peabody, (recently orphaned and now independently wealthy) and her soon-to-be husband. The series is still going strong with the release last year of A River in the Sky which places Amelia and friends in Palestine just prior to the outbreak of the first world war.

Jessica Mann, who studied archaeology herself and is married to an archaeologist, published a series of six books featuring Tamara Hoyland who was an agent of the British secret service and an archaeologist . The first of these, published in 1981 is Funeral Sites and though I think I’ve read them all (in the days before my wonderful spreadsheet so I can’t know for sure) the only one I can remember much about is the fourth book, Death Beyond the Nile, in which Tamara joins an archaeological tour of Egypt in order to thwart the dastardly schemes of a woman who is threatening British security. I remember the book being full of fun characters and lots of dastardly plotting. A teensey bit of googling tells me that Mann also has a series of three earlier books starting with The Only Security (1971) which feature an archaeology professor as the heroine.

While Lyn Hamilton‘s Canadian heroine Lara McClintock is not herself an archaeologist she is an antiques dealer who specialises in archaeological objects and the books, starting with 1997′s The Xibalba Murders take us on adventures all over the globe looking at a fascinating range of ancient cultures including the Mayans, the Celts, the Etruscans and even the people of Easter Island.

Beverly Connor wrote about the first forensic archaeologist I can remember reading about, in 1996′s A Rumor of Bones. Her heroine is Lindsay Chamberlain who in this first novel discovers that the bones police believe belong to a missing girl they have been searching for belong to a different child who appears to have been sexually abused. Eventually they work out there are bones of more than one missing child on the site which is when things take an extremely grim turn.

I can attest to the fact that Erin Hart‘s 2003 novel Haunted Ground, about a well preserved head discovered in the peat bogs of Ireland, is a book you don’t forget quickly. The hero of the novel, Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire, works with an American anthropologist to solve both a historic crime and a present-day one. This is a very dark and atmospheric book set in a closed community.

And of course last year I became besotted by the Elly Griffiths novels featuring Dr Ruth Galloway who is a forensic archaeologist at the fictional North Norfolk University. Both The Crossing Places and The Janus Stone were great books, full of wonderful characters, lots of atmosphere and curious mysteries. The third book in the series, The House at Seas End, was one of the two books that prompted this post (I finished it yesterday, review to come later this week).

The other book I am reading (via audio) this week is Kate EllisA Perfect Death in which the protagonist, who is a policeman, has a best friend who is an archaeologist and whose investigations seem to always involve the subject. In this book there is a grizzly murder on the site of an ancient one and records of the site’s excavation have vanished! I stumbled across this book on special at audible but now realise the whole series (this is book 13 of what is soon to be 16) features things archaeological so there’s a backlog for me to trawl.

Are there more archaeological mysteries you’ve read? Why do you think this profession is so highly represented in crime fiction? Do you know any real-life archaeologists who lead such exciting, dangerous lives?

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Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is hosting the crime fiction alphabet meme which requires the posting of an article relating to the letter of the week.

This is the second round of the meme which was first run from late 2009 to early 2010. My contributions that time were discussions of books with one word titles.

Goodbye to the Crime Fiction Alphabet

For the past few months Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise has hosted the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme which has been contributed to by a varied group of dedicated crime fiction fans. I’ve mentioned before that most memes don’t do a lot for me but I have enjoyed this one for a couple of reasons.

Selfishly it has made me trawl through my reading past and remember some delights (and a couple of clunkers). Having a giant TBR pile I tend to always be thinking about the next book so it has been pleasant to reflect on books past and to share with others some of the great books (and a couple of clunkers) that I read before I started blogging.

Secondly, reading other people’s contributions has added countless titles to my own reading list.  Happily this hasn’t led to my complete financial ruin because other contributors have also shared their thoughts about older books and many of these have been available cheaply or at the library. For someone with poor impulse control it’s essential not to always be reading about great books that are (costly) new releases.  Of the alphabet-inspired books that I’ve already read some have become new ‘keepers’ (Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death and Gene Kerrigan’s The Midnight Choir for example), others have entertained (Lindy Kelly’s Bold Blood) and challenged me (George PelecanosThe Way Home) and many more glimmer at me from my TBR Shelves (including a couple of books by Simon Brett, Leif Davidsen’s The Serbian Dane, two books by Willian Deverell, The Ghostway by Tony Hillerman, The Irish Village Murder by Dicey Deere and Last Light by Alex Scarrow).

In homage to one of my favourite crime fiction authors, Sue Grafton, my contributions all discuss books with one word titles (with a couple of liberties taken for the pesky last letters of the alphabet):

  • A is for Absolution [Caro Ramsay]
  • B is for Bones [Jan Burke]
  • C is for Contest [Matthew Reilly]
  • D is for Deadlock [Sara Paretsky]
  • E is for Entombed [Linda Fairstein]
  • F is for Fortress [Gabrielle Lord]
  • G is for Gambit [Rex Stout]
  • H is for Heartsick [Chelsea Cain]
  • I is for Inheritance [Keith Baker]
  • J is for Jigsaw [Anthea Fraser]
  • K is for Kisscut [Karin Slaughter]
  • L is for Lost [Michael Robotham]
  • M is for Marker [Robin Cook]
  • N is for Nerve [Dick Francis]
  • O is for Outsider [John Francome]
  • P is for Postmortem [Patricia Cornwell]
  • Q is for Quantico [Greg Bear]
  • R is for Reflections [Jo Bannister]
  • S is for Stranglehold [Jennifer Rowe]
  • T is for Timeline [Michael Crichton]
  • U is for Undertow [Sydney Bauer]
  • V is for Vanish [Tess Gerritsen]
  • W is for Watchdog [Laurien Berenson]
  • X is for X-Esquire [Leslie Charteris]
  • Y is for Y2K [R J Pineiro]
  • Z is for Z4CK [Kevin Milne]
  • Thanks for hosting the meme Kerrie.

    Crime Fiction Alphabet: Z is for Z4CK

    I was not exactly spoiled for choice for my final contribution to the crime fiction alphabet but it seems fitting to end off on a book that’s a little bit crime, a little bit sci-fi and a little bit thriller given that several of my contributions have bled into one or other of these sub-genres over the past few months.

    Z4CK by Kevin Milne appealed to my inner geek. The book starts out in the near future in Edinburgh, Scotland and we see a future with some things I would dearly love to see (such as the flights to Australia from Scotland that take less than 3 hours) and other parts that I’m not so keen on (such as everyone carrying a single device that contains all of their personal information and a single company called Sec-Net having a monopoly on the security of that information). We then learn, in flashback, the story of Duncan Steele who created a program, called Z4CK which is an abbreviation for something I can’t remember, that allows him to bypass any network’s security and was nearly killed for it. Framed for a murder he did not commit Duncan has to use all his computer hacking skills to keep himself alive and out of jail.

    The book is a great romp of an adventure and, apparently, very technically accurate which is not surprising given that Milne is a security expert and open source software pioneer. He says he wrote the entire novel on a wireless hand-held device during his morning commute on Scottish trains which, in the early 00′s must have gotten him a lot more raised eyebrows than would be the case now. This probably also explains the numerous typos in the book (nearly forgivable in the free PDF version but not quite so acceptable in the printed version that came out in 2004). There’s not a heck of a lot of character development but the plot is solid, if a little far-fetched, and thoroughly entertaining.

    ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

    Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for hosting this fun meme and ensuring that even if I’ve posted nothing else during the week I’ve managed to pull something together each Monday for the last few months.

    Crime Fiction Alphabet: Y is for Y2K

    Yes I am taking another liberty with my personal challenge of discussing books with one word titles for my penultimate contribution to the crime fiction alphabet but, having been rather heavily ensconced in the madness that surrounded this particular event, I couldn’t resist discussing at least one of the plethora of books that were churned out in the lead up to 1 January 2000. For those who don’t remember, the problem (variously named the Y2K problem, the Year 2000 problem, the Millennium Bug etc) related to a supposed catastrophe that would befall the world because most computer code used 2 digits to refer to years (eg 97, 98, 99) and when the calendar rolled over to the year 2000 the computers would all think it was 1900 and mayhem would ensue (there are now and were then several dozen very logical reasons why no major catastrophes were ever going to happen but in our modern world we tend not to let facts get in the way of a good fear campaign so international committees were established and many dollars were spent to fix the non problem).

    Y2K was thriller writer R J Pineiro’s second book to address the predicted digital doomsday (his other one was called 01-01-2000 and was published the same year). It was one of the more bizarre efforts at the genre within a genre and if memory serves me properly involved a villainous Slobodan Milosevic (presumably taking time out from committing genocide and whatnot) developing a scheme to bring the US to its knees by making all its computers non-compliant with Y2K requirements. His evil henchmen are battled by a female ex-CIA agent whose name escapes me but I do recall that she left the CIA after many years when her lover was killed but is forced back into the world of espionage and people killing each other for nonsensical reasons by the hunt for a world-saving millennium bug code. I don’t recall much else about the book.

    Why did I read this book? For some sins committed in a previous life in the lead up to 1 January 2000 I was working in an IT section of a large government department and inherited responsibility for ensuring that our particular part of the world didn’t come to a disastrous halt on T H E   B I G   D A Y. From the outset I was more than a little skeptical of the need to spend hundreds of thousands of tax payers’ dollars hiring blokes who could only afford their Brooks Brothers suits and BMWs because they’d managed to scare the bejesus out of bureaucrats the world over and was known to rant at length about the idiocy of the entire thing. As a mood lightening exercise one of the project team members gave me a book called Y 2 K: The Millenium Bug by Don Tiggre as a joke and things snowballed from there. It became great sport to see who could find the silliest Year 2000 related book for me and I ended up with quite a collection.

    I love that my favourite genre often tackles the big subjects facing the world with more heart and insight than any other kind of writing, including journalism. The flip side of course is that, on occasion, it also tackles the nonsense subjects that distract personkind from the things that matter. You have to take the good with the bad I guess and we can at least rest easily that this book, and the dozens of others on the theme, are all now the pulp that they should always have been because they’re dated and irrelevant.

    I do like to play the “what will be next” game though. Swine Flu thrillers possibly?

    Crime Fiction Alphabet – X is for X Esquire

    OK I admit it I am beaten. In homage to Sue Grafton I attempted to put together a crime fiction alphabet of one word titles (of books I have read) but the dastardly letter X has stumped me. Though I have seen this title written with a hyphen: does that count?

    Leslie Charteris published his first book, X Esquire, in 1927. You don’t have to look too hard to see the genesis of the series Charteris’ is most famous for featuring Simon Templar (a.k.a. The Saint) which started two books later. X Esquire starred a chap by the name of Terry Mannering who took it upon himself to knock off some evil doers who were attempting to flood Britain with poisonous cigarettes (more poisonous than usual that is). Signing himself anonymously X, esquire in his communiqué’s Mannering matched wits with an unconventional Scotland Yard detective by the name of Bill Kennedy who also appeared in Charteris’ second novel.

    If the world is divided into Bond fans and Saint fans then I am definitely in the second camp. I suspect it’s because my older brother had all the books in a box which he inherited from some distant male relative and never looked at but I slowly worked my way through them when I’d run out of everything else to read and it wasn’t time to go back to the library yet.

    One of the useless (unless I’m at the right quiz night) facts swimming around my brain is that Charteris had a Chinese father and was therefore excluded from gaining residency in the US under something called the Chinese Exclusion Act until an act of Congress granted him and his daughter permanent residency. If you want to know more about the man and his works check out Leslie Charteris and the Saint: An Appreciation at the excellent Shots Magazine website.

    Crime Fiction Alphabet – W is for Watchdog

    I’ve chosen a cosy by Laurien Berenson for this week’s contribution to the Crime Fiction Alphabet. Watchdog is the fifth of 15 books in Berenson’s series featuring Melanie Travis: a special education teacher and new-ish owner of a show-quality standard poodle called Faith. In this outing Melanie’s brother Frank has gone into a shonky moneymaking scheme with a property developer named Marcus Rattigan and when Rattigan is killed Frank becomes the number one suspect. Wanting to clear her brother’s name (and of course not trusting the police to be able to find a single clue as is the way of things in cosy-land) Melanie soon discovers Rattigan had an angry ex-wife, an unhappy mistress and a swag of residents who are none to keen on Rattigan’s aim to ‘yuppify’ their neighbourhood.

    The series isn’t likely to set the world on fire but it is well written, solidly paced and, most important for my cosy reading, full of gentle humour. Melanie’s Aunt Peg is a judge of champion poodles and Melanie’s staunchest supporter. She’s a great character and, for my money, funnier and more interesting than Stephanie Plum’s loopy grandmother. Melanie is a single mum (though she does have a love interest) with lots of irons in the fire and her juggling of work, family and poodles is credibly portrayed. I grew up in a dog-showing household and the antics and obsessions of dog showing fanatics depicted here are very realistic and offer lots of humorous potential. My recommendation for a lazy afternoon for dog lovers who can see the funny side of their obsession is to read Watchdog then check out Best in Show (a comedy movie about dog shows).

    Crime Fiction Alphabet – V is for Vanish

    We’re in the home stretch alphabet-wise and it’s time to discuss the work of American writer Tess Gerritsen. Vanish is the fifth of Gerritsen’s eight published novels to feature Boston detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles and it tackles a couple of subjects with surprising sensitivity for a thriller. It opens rather explosively with Isles about to undertake an examination of one of her ‘clients’ who is thought to have committed suicide when suddenly the woman’s eyes open. She is rushed from the morgue to the hospital where things really start to go awry as she kills a security guard and takes some hostages, including a heavily pregnant Jane Rizzoli.

    Without wanting to give away too much more in the way of plot I will say that the book deals with the subject of human trafficking and it does so very well. Of course it’s not the first book to deal with the topic but in depicting the life of a trafficked woman in flashback it gives what feels like a pretty realistic portrayal of how easily such things happen. In fact this aspect was a highlight of the book for me: the way it depicts the notion of an  ‘American dream’ still being a palpable force for many people outside the country. Having ‘lost’ a brother to the American dream (i.e. he moved there permanently more than 20 years ago though his defection has proven useful as a holiday destination) I thought Gerritsen did a really great job of depicting the longing that many people have for what they believe America can offer them and how, if you’ve a nasty streak in you, it is easy to exploit people’s desire to attain that dream.

    On one level this is a sold and fast-paced thriller about a desperate young women who is the victim of some vicious criminals and the almost ubiquitous government cover-up  that accompanies such tales these days. However, I liked the fact that the book had another layer of interest beyond the thrills and threw in some small p politics for good measure. I’ve never quite warmed to the character of Maura Isles, though she is more credible than Kay Scarpetta or Temperence Brennan, but I do like Jane Rizzoli who I’ve always thought of as a slightly more together version of Elizabeth George’s Barbara Havers. This is my favourite of the Rizzoli/Isles series and the good news is I think it’s perfectly readable as a standalone.

    Crime Fiction Alphabet: U is for Undertow

    We’ve reached the awkward bits of the alphabet for the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme and I admit I’ve found it a little difficult to come up with titles for my final 6 contributions. The back-end of the alphabet is just not as well serviced as the rest. The letter U is apparently so awkward that both the meme host (Kerrie from Mysteries in Paradise) and I have chosen the same book. Kerrie has already posted her take on the book and I really should look for something else but I simply don’t have time this week so I’ll have to submit my post about the same book :(

    The letter U takes me back to Undertow by Sydney Bauer which I read when it was released in 2006. It’s a legal thriller in which Boston lawyer David Cavanagh defends a woman, another lawyer, named Rayna Martin, charged with murder. Martin was supervising a sailing trip to celebrate her daughter’s 16th birthday. When the boat capsizes one of the children, the daughter of Federal Senator Rudolph Haynes, drowns while Martin is rescuing the other three. Accusations of racism are leveled at Martin because the girl who drowned was the only white person on the trip.

    Sydney Bauer is an Australian author who sets her books in the US and seems to have grasped the intricacies of the US political and judicial systems well. Undertow really is an old-fashioned legal thriller, focusing on the ways in which events, and people, can be manipulated to appear differently depending on interpretation. It is perhaps more than a little sad that I found it so easy to believe in a character like Rudolph Haynes who freely abuses his power as a politician to achieve his nastily racist ideals and a little less easy to swallow the ‘good guy’ and very likable Cavanagh.

    Undertow was Bauer’s first novel and is a solid debut, bearing good similarities to the early John Grisham novels which I enjoyed. It shows how a law suit can be put together in such a way that even when no one disagrees about the facts you can still tell wildly different stories.

    On the issue of covers I am ever bemused. I presume the first two are supposed to both be Boston but they don’t even look like the same skyline to me. I’d have gone for the boat myself.

    Crime Fiction Alphabet: T is for Timeline (not Taken)

    T is also for Tetchy which is how I’m feeling today so for this week’s Crime Fiction Alphabet contribution I’m going to break the meme rules a little. I had planned to write about one of the two books I’ve read called Taken (one by Chris Jordan and another by Kathleen George) but honestly neither of them filled me with much glee and I can barely separate their kidnap related plots in my head. Instead I’m going to write about Michael Crichton’s Timeline which is a thriller rather than crime fiction but with our meme host out of the country this week I’m feeling brave enough to flaunt the rules.

    Timeline is the sort of thing you get when you mix decently-researched science and history with a quirky imagination. Fictiondom is full of time travel adventures but Timeline is cleverer and more tongue in cheek than most. It opens in 1999 where a fanatical genius discovers a way to “fax” three dimensional objects (people) back in time. A history professor and his most brilliant students are on an archaeological dig in France when the professor leaves to visit the corporate headquarters of the aforementioned fanatical genius. Soon the students uncover a document that appears to date from the 1300′s but also looks to be written in their professor’s handwriting!  Soon the students are off to 1357 to rescue their professor (and do a bit of swashbuckling on the side).

    The interplay between time periods is well done (there’s not a single mention of the dilemma that would ensue if one was to meet one’s own ancestor) and the action is non-stop. I’m reliably informed (by one of the world’s great fans of such things) that Crichton’s depictions of jousting are some of the most accurate to make it to fiction which doesn’t surprise me as Crichton always seemed to be able to bring the most life to the oddest of topics (in Airframe he makes airplane maintenance manuals seem utterly gripping). The characters, particularly the students, are well done and it really is a lot of fun watching a bunch of people who have loads of academic knowledge about a subject try to put that ‘knowledge’ into practice in the rough and tumble world of 1357.

    For me Timeline is one of those fun, escapist books that I can get lost in. If you do plan on checking it out don’t under any circumstances choose the movie over the book. It’s awful.

    Crime Fiction Alphabet – S is for Stranglehold

    My contribution for the S round of the Crime Fiction Alphabet is Jennifer Rowe’s Stranglehold. Like most of the six novels featuring Verity Birdwood it’s an Agatha Christie inspired variation on the country house mystery. It tells the story of Max Tully; a wealthy radio host in Sydney who throws a big party for his 70th birthday at which he makes some surprising announcements. Afterwards he starts receiving nasty anonymous letters and invites Verity, a private detective as well as the daughter of his old friend and current boss, to ‘Third Wish’, his opulent cliff top house overlooking the sea. Also staying at the house are his adult children, his estranged third wife and his new fiancée. When one of them is murdered Verity must determine whether the culprit is one of the guests or a nearby neighbour.

    I admit I am something of a sucker for these slightly old-fashioned whodunits of cleverly constructed plots and groups of people with mysterious secrets. In Stranglehold Max Tully has some secrets from his childhood that influence his behaviour decades later and all the members of his household have secret desires or grudges or fears that come into play at some point in the story. The story is more believable than many in the genre for several reasons including the facts that the body count stops at one and the family relationships are very realistically depicted.

    I really enjoy Verity as a character. Although an amateur sleuth turned professional detective she’s really not at the ‘cosy’ end of the scale being a somewhat unemotional person who thinks a crime through in her head in a way that is reminiscent of M. Hercule Poirot using his little grey cells. However she’s also quite funny, if a little acerbic, and is smart enough to get away with her superior attitude.

    Jennifer Rowe was the first Australian writer of crime fiction that I discovered (with 1988’s Grim Pickings) and I always wish she had written more than her eight books. However, under her real name of Emily Rodda she’s been a little busy publishing around 50 books for children so I guess I have to cut her a little slack.

    I reviewed another of Jennifer Rowe’s Verity Birdwood country house mysteries, The Makeover Murders, back in 2008