The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme is very close to the end of our tour! We’re already at our 22nd stop – the letter “V.” I’ve been really enjoying the chance to check out some new-to-me reading, visit other book bloggers and share what I read. Thanks, as ever, to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, who’s been keeping all of us together on our dangerous trip. My contribution for this week’s tour stop is Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s The Visitant. Published in 1999, it’s the first of the three books in their Anasazi series.
The novel begins with a prologue in which Ash Girl, a 13th Century Anasazi woman, is frantically seeking help for her young son, who’s desperately ill. Instead of getting the help she needs, though, she has a terrifying encounter. Then, the action shifts to the modern era. William “Dusty” Stewart is an archaeologist who’s just received the clearance he needs to begin an excavation of the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. Stewart is hoping to find out more about the Anasazi people who lived in the area centuries ago and is eager to begin his work. He and his team start the excavation under the supervision of Park Ranger Maggie “Magpie” Walking Hawk and her aunt Hail Walking Hawk. Hail is a member of the Pueblo Nation who’s been sent to ensure that the archeologists don’t desecrate sacred ground. Everyone gets settled into the routine of planning and beginning the dig. Then, they make a grim and unexpected discovery: the remains of eight women who seem to have been placed in a mass grave. Now the excavation has to stop until the deaths can be investigated – no easy task, since the bodies were found on sacred ground and the remains are ancient.
Halifax-based forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole is called in to help in the investigation. She’s worked with Stewart before and although she respects his knowledge of archaeology, the two do not see the world in the same way, and dislike each other. Still, she’s fascinated by the task and sets to work to find out what happened to these women. For its part, the archaeology team searches through the dig to find out more about the culture from which these women came.
At the same time as the modern-day investigation is going on, we also follow a parallel investigation. 13th-Century Anasazi War Chief Browser is carrying out the heartbreaking task of burying his young son. As he and his people are completing the ritual, they discover a body in the burial pit that had been intended for his son. And then there’s another attack. And more deaths. It looks very much as though some evil force is loose among the Anasazi, and Browser and his deputy and closest friend Catkin begin to search for answers. As this 13th Century team try to make sense of what’s happening, the modern day archaeology team work with Cole to try to find out the truth about the remains they’ve found. In the end, each team discovers the truth in its own way.
One of the important elements in this novel is the use of parallel timelines and perspectives and parallel investigations. The two stories alternate and tell of very different groups of people who are looking for answers. Even the writing style changes slightly depending on which story is being told. Those style changes are just one way in which the Gears ensure that the reader isn’t confused as to which story is being told at any given moment. The effect (at least for me) is that we look at the same murders from different perspectives. We also get a look at the murderer’s perspective; that perspective is given in italics so it, too, is easy to set apart. That said, though, readers who dislike multiple timelines and perspectives may find this aspect of the book a stumbling block. To be honest, I didn’t find it to be a problem.
Another element that ties this novel together is what we learn about archaeology, anthropology and the Anasazi people. The authors are both archaeologists and they put their scientific expertise and their backgrounds to effective use in this novel. That gives a real sense of authenticity to the story as we follow the modern dig team. The Gears also have a background in ancient history and anthropology, and that knowledge is obvious, too. We learn a great deal about Anasazi culture and lifestyle, and that adds to the 13th-Century-based plot line. There’s also a real flavour of the science involved in forensic anthropology and in archeology. What’s refreshing about this is that the scientific processes of looking for answers are portrayed realistically. Science is not always glamourous work; it’s painstaking and one doesn’t get the answers magically. That day-to-day aspect of science is shown honestly.
The major characters are also important elements in this novel. Stewart and Cole are both complex people. Each has been wounded by life, although in different ways, and it affects the way they interact with each other and with the world. As their backstories slowly unfold, we learn what’s happened to them and it adds to their depth. It’s also worth noting that their relationship is not a “typical” boy-meets-girl-they-hate-each-other-and-then-fall-in-love story. Stewart and Cole are attracted to each other, but mostly, they engage each other intellectually. They spar on many levels, but they depend on each other. Each brings some important skills and knowledge to the task at hand. As they work together and learn more about each other, they also end up finding some measure of personal healing. In the parallel, 13th Century story, the characters of Browser and Catkin are also well-drawn and interesting. Especially worth noting is that they’re not thinly-disguised versions of Stewart and Cole, only in ancient times. Instead, they’re unique characters. Browser is devastated by his personal losses, and has his own “baggage.” Yet, he isn’t a stereotypical “tormented sleuth.” For her part, Catkin is smart, skilled and extremely observant. She understands Browser possibly better than anyone else does, and yet again, their relationship is not stereotypical. They aren’t really lovers, but they are much more than friends.
There are also some interesting philosophical issues raised in this novel. One of them, for instance, is the uneasy relationship between scientific and philosophical/spiritual approaches to knowledge. Cole is a scientist and looks for scientific truths. Stewart is “tuned in” to the more spiritual/philosophical ways of viewing the world. Although each understands the other’s view, each feels the other is lacking. As the events in the story unfold, both approaches to looking at the world turn out to be important.
The story takes place in the Sonoran Desert of New Mexico, and the Gears place the reader unmistakeably there:
“Dusty gazed across the fire pit, between two tents, and down the length of canyon to the east. The cliffs wavered like golden phantoms. Not a single cloud adorned the pale blue sky, which meant there was no relief in sight. Without an afternoon thundershower, the heat would remain high well into the evening.”
The harshly beautiful country and the extreme temperatures add to the story as both groups of people search for the key to the mystery.
The mystery itself is almost less important than the rest of the novel. The deaths turn out to be the work of someone with an unusual kind of motive and the stories do focus on that mystery. But as much as telling a mystery story, the Gears tell the stories of the characters in both time frames and of the Anasazi culture. But what’s your view? Have you read The Visitant? If you have, what elements do you see in it?