By now you’ve probably heard of the discovery of the bones of England’s King Richard III in Leicester. And as it happens, today (or yesterday, depending on when you read this) would have been Mary Leakey’s 100th birthday. So it seems like the perfect time to dig up some crime fiction that has archaeology as its focus. There’s a lot of it too and that makes sense. Archaeologists have added much to our knowledge of history, they’ve answered a lot of questions and they’ve given us a fascinating perspective on ourselves as a species.
Agatha Christie fans will know that she was married to an archaeologist, so several of her stories and novels have that science as a theme. I’m only going to mention one. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot is returning home after a visit to the Middle East when he is asked to break his journey and investigate a murder. Louise Leidner, wife of prominent archaeologist Eric Leidner, has been found bludgeoned in her room. As Poirot gets to know the excavation team he discovers that there were several members of the team who had a good motive for murder. Besides the mystery itself, this novel gives readers a look at the way archaeologists go about what they do – or at least the way they did so at the time the novel was written. There’s information on digging, cleaning pottery and other finds and storing antiquities.
Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man is the story of the murder of Harry Steadman. Steadman is an archaeologist with Leeds University when an inheritance frees him to pursue his own goals. His passion is the set of Roman ruins in Yorkshire so he and his wife Emma move to that area. He begins to work on a large excavation project which he hopes will yield some fascinating material. When Steadman is murdered, DI Alan Banks and his team investigate the death. And there are several suspects too, including those who are opposed to a potentially valuable piece of land being set aside for an archaeological dig. As the novel moves along we learn something about the politics of getting permission to dig, starting the process and dealing with the egos involved.
Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi Mystery trilogy features archaeologist William ‘Dusty’ Stewart. As a young man, he was mentored by Dr. Dale Robertson and has learned from his role model not just the scientific elements of archaeology but also its nuances. Stewart has a real feel for the Sonoran desert in which this trilogy takes place and a real respect for the people who live there. In The Visitant, the first in this series, he and his dig team discover the remains of eight women who seem to have been murdered. Robertson convinces him to work with Dr. Maureen Cole, a forensic anthropologist, to find out who these women were and why they were buried where they were found. Cole and Stewart have very different approaches to going about their research, but they complement each other and in the end we learn what happened to the victims. Throughout this trilogy (The Summoning God and Bone Walker are the other novels), readers get an ‘inside look’ at what it’s like to live and work on a dig site. The life is not at all romanticised but it’s easy to see its appeal.
Jessica Mann’s Tamara Hoyland is an archaeologist who, in the course of the series that features her, also becomes an agent for British Intelligence. In Funeral Sites, the first in this series, she works with Rosamund Sholto, who travels to England to attend her sister Phoebe Britton’s funeral. Sholto soon begins to believe that Phoebe’s husband Aiden had something to do with her death. He is blindly ambitious as well as shady and Sholto wouldn’t put it past him to have committed murder. But Aiden Britton is also powerful and well-connected. So Sholto soon finds herself on the run as she tries to get the evidence she needs. She’s helped in this case by Hoyland, whose lover is a member of British Intelligence. When Hoyland proves herself if I may put it that way, she too is invited to join the intelligence community. This series strikes an interesting balance as Mann explores not just Hoyland’s skills as an archaeologist but also her skills as an intelligence agent. Hoyland has a solid enough reputation to use her archaeology credentials in her travels so her profession serves as a useful cover for her ‘other life.’
And no discussion of archaeology in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway. Galloway is a Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. Because of her background and skills, she is often called to the scene when a skeleton is discovered. That’s how she meets DCI Harry Nelson, the father of her daughter Kate. Their relationship and her role as Kate’s mother form important threads through this series. But so does the professional work she does. In The House at Sea’s End for instance, she works to discover the identity of six people whose remains are found when a piece of rock crumbles into the sea. The victims do not seem to be English. What’s more, they seem to have been there since the time of World War II. As Galloway is working on this mystery, another death occurs, this time the death of a man who was writing a story on the victims. Now it’s clear that someone is desperate to make sure that no-one finds out the truth about those victims.
I know that Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant is not an archaeologist. But as I’ve mentioned the new discovery of King Richard III’s body, I couldn’t leave out Tey’s The Daughter of Time. In that novel Grant goes on the trail of a very cold case. He is in hospital with a broken leg when he gets interested in a portrait of King Richard III. As he muses on the portrait it occurs to him that the king may not have been the murderer he was always thought to be. So Grant takes it upon himself to find out what really happened in the case of the Princes in the Tower.
I wish I were better schooled in archaeology but I’m not. It’s fascinating to read about though. Want more? Sure ya do. Check out this interesting post about archaeology in crime fiction by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. Her top-notch blog is more than worth a prominent place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll anyway.
On Another Note…
I can’t help but think that the news about King Richard III would have really interested the late and sorely-missed Maxine Clarke. She was a real fan of The Daughter of Time too so my guess is that she’d have appreciated this interest in the king. Somehow I hope she knows…
Maxine was an ardent supporter of crime fiction and an avid reader. She was also a friend. So I’m honoured to be a part of Petrona Remembered, an exciting new blog that celebrates her passion for crime fiction. Please visit Petrona Remembered and consider contributing to it. Honestly it’s quite simple to submit your post on your favourite crime fiction and crime fiction topics. Check out the blog and help us to keep alive her love of the genre. See ya there!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Johnson’s Traffic in the Sky.