Puzzle Pieces in the Ground*

ArchaeologyBy 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elly Griffiths, Jessica Mann, Josephine Tey, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Peter Robinson, W. Michael Gear

18 responses to “Puzzle Pieces in the Ground*

  1. Very interesting post, Margot. My husband was intrigued by the discovery of the bones of Richard III and I am sending him this post to check out. I will have to check out the series here that I am not familiar with, particularly Jessica Mann’s Tamara Hoyland series.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. I hope that if you get the chance to read Jessica Mann’s work, you’ll like it. I think she’s quite talented and in fact, you’re making me think I ought to spotlight one of her novels. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. It is all very exciting (you can imagine the fuss here in the UK) so a perfect post – thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – Thank you 🙂 – Yes, I can only imagine how much interest there is over the discovery in the U.K. There’s plenty this side of the pond too. It is fascinating and I just love the role that modern technology’s been playing.

  3. I was fascinated by the Richard III bones story. King Alfred the Great is supposed to buried very close to where I live, and apparently there is a plan to dig up and check on his bones too, but I think that’s just piggybacking!

    • Moira – I didn’t know that about the plan to dig up those bones in your area. I wonder if it’ll actually happen and if so, what’ll come of it. I’m going to have to start following that…

  4. I have really been researching the life of Richard III. I was excited to see the face they made from his skull. How fascinating that we can look into the past like that.

    • Clarissa – Oh, I feel the same way. It really is fascinating to follow the story and see how today’s archaeologists and forensics experts and find answers we never were able to find before. I really like those new advances.

  5. Hi Margot. Another great post. Somewhat unrelated (and you may have covered this topic before) : could you do a post on (mystery) writers’ favorite writers, for example Agatha Christie was a fan of Elizabeth Daly, and Somerset Maugham was a fan of Raymond Chandler, who in turn was an admirer of Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, and so on. I think it’s a fascinating topic, especially for the insights it gives us into the author’s idea of good writing, and other things like influence, etc. Thanks.

    • Bryan – What a great idea. Thanks for the idea and thanks for the kind words. You’ve got good examples there and I’m sure there are others. I appreciate the inspiration.

  6. kathy d.

    Of course, I love Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway character; the stories, colorful personalities, professional issues and her home life all come together so well. Who couldn’t like a woman who is protrayed realistically, smart, not glamorous, kind, doesn’t use karate or high-tech equipment. She acts like a real person and gets into complicated situations and thinks about them as in actual life.
    And I must pass along the Gears’ story ideas to a friend who loves going on archaelogical digs.

    • Kathy – You’ve highlighted what (to me) are the best things about the Ruth Galloway character. She is a very realistic character and I agree that Griffiths does an effective job of blending her home life/personal situation and her professional life. That’s not always easy to do.
      I think the Anasazi trilogy is nicely done and one of its strengths is the way the life of an archaeologist is depicted. It’s not an easy life and the Gears don’t sugarcoat it. But it’s easy to see why people love going on digs.

  7. Thanks for the kind shout out Margot, and for more tips on archaeological mysteries for me to track down. It is a theme I love to read about. I have just begun the latest Ruth Galloway adventure and feel like I am back with old friends

    • Bernadette – Oh, it’s my pleasure as ever to tell people about your blog. Archaeology is a fascinating topic and what we learn from it can be pretty amazing. I like to read about it too. And I know exactly what you mean about the characters in the Ruth Galloway series. One does feel among old friends. I like series like that…

  8. There’s a body of thought that Queen Boudicca is buried under platform 9 in Kings Cross train station on London. I’m convinced this is an urban myth but I’ve no idea really. I’m astounded that they’ve discovered the body of Richard iii and I hope to go and see any exhibition that is mounted. There have been lots of jokes going around the internet about unpaid parking fines that have made me laugh as it is everyone’s bugbear in this crowded isle.
    Thanks for the link to Bernadette’s post. I hadn’t seen it before.

    • Sarah – Unpaid parking fines – how funny! Yes, I can see why those jokes have been going round. I’d love to see any King Richard III exhibit too. Apart from everything else I just think it’s so fascinating that they’ve been able to use modern technology to give us answers about those bones and about what happened to the king. That’s quite a prospect too that Queen Boudicca may be buried at Kings Cross station. Urban myth or not it’s interesting to speculate…
      And I think you’ll enjoy Bernadette’s post; it’s a very nice summary of some interesting archaeology-based crime fiction/

  9. Loved the Aaron Elkins books that used an archaeologist as its detective.

    • Patti – You know, I almost mentioned Elkins. I simply didn’t so I’m very, very glad that you did. I like his Gideon Oliver very much and yes, Elkins does a great job of integrating archaeology into the series.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s