Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
Burials, the tenth Dr. Faye Longchamp-Mantooth archaeological mystery by master-writer Mary Anna Evans, begins with a bang. Literally.
Faye and her client are hiding under a pick-up in Oklahoma as somebody shoots at them. Though the precise motive and identity of the shooter will not be revealed until the end, the discovery that same day of a long-buried skeleton in an abandoned archaeological excavation site on Muscogee (Creek) nation land suggests a reason. Somebody apparently does not want Faye and her client, archaeologist Dr. Carson Callahan, reopening the site, which holds both ancient and modern secrets.
In a story that might invite comparisons to Tony Hillerman’s work, Burials departs from the Deep South locale of the series and features the Oklahoma Muscogee culture and lands. While Hillerman’s novels focus on the Navajos in the Southwest instead of the Creek, Hillerman and Evans both convey a sympathetic appreciation for Native Americans and their ancient cultures. They both spin tales in which they mix the land, nature, culture, and greed into riveting stories. They excel in creating edge-of-your-seat pacing with thrilling dangers and deep mystery.
In other words, the same qualities that make Hillerman’s books great are at play in Evans’s Burials. And yet, with Evans, there’s a touch more—she reaches deeper into the hearts and minds of her characters, and exacts a compelling understanding of her people’s emotions that goes well beyond plot and mystery. She has a distinctive lyrical voice, which can be surprisingly gentle even when it deals with violence.
In Burials, the placement of Faye and her husband Joe Mantooth in Oklahoma, rather than in their lush Florida home, seems natural. Joe is a native Oklahoman. Faye and Joe journey from Florida to Oklahoma for a long-delayed visit to Joe’s father, Sly. The occasion is somber—Sly invites them home because he is finally ready to scatter the ashes of his late wife, who was Joe’s beloved mother. To help finance the trip, Faye scrounges up an archaeological consulting job with Carson.
This consulting position sounds innocent enough. An archaeological dig on Muscogee land was abandoned 29 years ago when its archaeologist, Dr. Sophia Townsend, apparently walked off the project. Rumors after her disappearance had the woman leaving the area for the solitude of her cabin in the mountains. Strangely enough, no official law enforcement investigation of her disappearance took place, other than a cursory peek into her cabin in the mountains. Nearly 30 years later, the Muscogee nation hopes to build a park on the old dig, but only if nothing sacred lies below ground. Carson, who is Creek and grew up in the area, is hired to reopen the dig to determine whether there are sacred remains at the site. Carson hires Faye as his consultant.
But getting shot at during her first moments on the job disabuses Faye of any notion that the project is ordinary. Soon after the sheriff arrives and the shooting stops, Carson’s mother, who views such digs as an insult to the tribe’s sacred cultural heritage and a desecration of burial sites, leads a protest against the archaeological project. Over the sounds of the protest, a skilled backhoe operator uncovers the original excavation by scooping up the dry, loamy topsoil that covers the site.
Once the 29-year-old excavation is exposed, the crew enters the hole to investigate. While an eager Faye and Joe explore inside the excavation, a lonely woman, hired on the crew to help with the physical work, starts hacking and digging in near-hysteria at a low spot in the reopened site. Faye and Carson try to stop her because she is damaging the site, but she persists and soon uncovers what remains of a human body. She is physically restrained, but not before wreaking havoc on the site, which is now a crime scene as well.
The condition of the now-exposed body immediately suggests murder to Faye and Carson.
The location and the tatters of surviving clothing suggest the body is that of Dr. Townsend.
It isn’t just the recovered body that catches the authorities’ eyes, but also a silver necklace, some ancient pearls, a priceless ancient figurine—and a pottery shard that looks to be a mate for a shard that graces Sly Mantooth’s mantel. The ancient artifacts suggest Faye and Carson might be on the brink of a major archaeological discovery, which would connect this site to the Spiro Mounds, an important Mississippian archaeological site in what is now Eastern Oklahoma. Yet the matching pieces of pottery shards in the dig and on Sly’s mantel also connect him with the dead body.
But only Faye sees the connection between the two pottery shards, and in an act of loyalty that will backfire, she keeps quiet, even after she is retained by the local sheriff as a consultant in the murder investigation.
By the time the victim is identified as Dr. Townsend, a host of suspects in the 29-year-old murder has surfaced, including Carson’s parents and a lifelong friend of theirs. The woman who frantically dug at the skeletal remains, and who once stalked Dr. Townsend, unnerves Faye and others with her needy behavior; she might also be a suspect. Unfortunately for Faye and Joe, Sly emerges as yet another suspect. Even Carson, who would have been a boy of eleven at the time Dr. Townsend was killed, is not above suspicion.
Raising the stakes, two more people are killed. Bad weather looms threateningly on the horizon. Good intentions lead to bad results as the cast of characters tries to protect loved ones—and their own secrets.
Evans’s characters, though they are fictional, resonate with feelings and complexity and a vivid quality that makes them seem quite real. Though the plot in Burials is intense, it’s Evans’s engaging characters that bring the action to life in believable, heart-tugging ways. Even the villain is well-drawn and in many ways sympathetic.
Evans, herself a scientist, is marvelously adept at educating her readers. Not that she is in any way pedantic or stodgily pedagogical—and she’s never even remotely boring. In fact, she’s quite talented at weaving into the plot descriptions and facts that will enlighten her readers on a number of related subjects. For example, she explains conflicts among Native Americans regarding archaeological excavations where scientific research is pitted against respect for the dead and for cultural heritage. She also nails the backhoe operator’s skills, carbon dating, and provides an accurate history of the Spiro Mounds and their wanton destruction, among other things.
At the heart of each of the novels in the series is Faye Longchamp-Mantooth, a multi-racial Florida native who inherited a plantation called Joyeuse on an island in North Florida. Readers were first introduced to Faye in Artifacts as she struggles to solve a mystery on her island while earning the money to pay the taxes on her beloved home. A graduate student in archaeology when the series begins, Faye struggles financially throughout the series—something that doesn’t end when she earns her Ph.D. She also meets Joe Mantooth, a squatter on her island, and after a slow and tough beginning, the two finally realize their love for each other and marry. By the time Burials takes place, they have an infant son and an adopted daughter. Neither of the children appears in Burials until the end of the book, but the family drama and related emotions are there as Evans explores Joe’s difficult childhood, his precarious relationship with his father, and the emotional balance necessary to maintain a good marriage under stress.
Once Joe’s father becomes a suspect in the 29-year-old murder of Dr. Townsend, Faye’s own loyalties are torn. How can she protect her father-in-law and remain ethical in her consulting role, especially after the sheriff hires her to work with him as a neutral expert? And closer to home than her duty to the sheriff is Faye’s own relationship with Joe, which suffers when Faye keeps a secret from him.
When Mary Anna Evans began this series in 2003, she was a Florida resident, with advanced degrees in physics and engineering. She remained in Florida while writing most of the books in the series. However, a few years back, she decamped from Florida to earn a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rutgers University-Camden, where she studied creative nonfiction and literary fiction. Currently she teaches fiction and nonfiction at the University of Oklahoma, where she is an assistant professor in the professional writing program.
Burials showcases Evans’s trademark blend of action, mystery, education, and emotion—and is an homage to her new state. Evans is a master at her craft, and Burials is evidence of her mastery.