“Catacombs,” by Mary Anna Evans

Mary Anna Evans

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Below the surface in Oklahoma City, a vast system of catacombs exists where a community of Chinese people once lived underground in the early twentieth century.

These catacombs are not fiction, though the book Catacombs (Poisoned Pen, 2019) is. Mary Anna Evans, the author of Catacombs, explains, “The parts of this book’s historical backstory that are the most difficult to believe are true.” Not only did these Chinese live there, but the health department inspected the catacombs in 1921 and found “the 200 or more inhabitants of the submerged quarter in good health and surroundings and as sanitary as all get out.” Later, in 1969, part of the underground system was explored and photographed.

From this fascinating truth, Evans spins a complex, compelling narrative that weaves the past and present together into a taut mystery. Catacombs is the twelfth entry in a popular and award-winning series, featuring archaeologist Faye Longchamp-Mantooth and her husband Joe Mantooth. In this outing, they are joined by Cully Mantooth, a famous though aging actor and distant cousin. Cully plays a pivotal role in the developing story and guards a painful secret from his youthful days in Oklahoma.

Faye and Joe, normally Florida residents, are in Oklahoma City when the story starts for a conference celebrating indigenous arts, where Joe and Cully are featured presenters. Cully, who is returning home after decades away, also brings Faye a hand-made flute and promises to teach her how to play. Joe had arranged for the gift of the flute and lessons, and Faye quips that Joe had therefore effectively won at gift-giving for the rest of their natural lives.

Cully intrigues Faye when they first meet in the lobby of a historic hotel in Oklahoma City. After all, he’s famous for his handsome face, movies, and musical talents. While Cully holds her attention, the gift of the flute enchants her. Cully still makes his flutes exactly as his Muscogee Creek father had taught him.

While Faye and Cully talk, unknown to them a bomber enters the catacombs below through a hidden door in the hotel. He carries a homemade bomb in his backpack. After surveying a room in the below-ground chamber, he returns to the surface and the hotel lobby.

Faye is so enchanted by the flute that when the bomb goes off, she clutches the flute protectively as she smashes into the marble floor. Though she and Cully are bruised and stunned, they are not seriously injured in the blast. The bomber is killed, though miraculously no one else is.

In short order, the FBI arrives and Faye, who has consulted for the agency before, is hired as an archaeologist consultant due to the role of the catacombs in the bombing. Before she’s even partially recovered from being smashed into a marble floor, she is whisked away by the FBI through sewer tunnels to view the room in the catacombs where the bomber had been only moments before the bomb exploded. There, three bodies of small children are wrapped and laid to rest. Around the room, colorful paintings featuring symbols, and displaying faces of women and one man, fill the walls.

Faye, Joe, and the FBI combine their skills in a suspenseful, well-paced race to discover the truth behind the bombing and the bodies of the children. Along the way, Cully confronts the secrets of his own past and Faye is endangered by a white-supremacist protest. An expert on the catacombs disappears, raising fears of her death or kidnapping. Faye struggles with the critical question of whether she can trust Cully, even as Cully makes trusting him harder and harder. The climax is exactly the kind of edge-of-your-seat dramatic confrontation with a unique twist that Evans does so well in her Faye Longchamp series.

Evans is a bold, talented writer, and takes readers into the head of the bomber even as his bomb activates—which was not his plan at all. Evans describes the last seconds of the bomber’s life in gritty, philosophical fashion, all the while avoiding graphic gore: “His hatred winked out of existence when he did. He simply was, and then he was not, and the world kept turning without him.”

Even bolder, Evans takes the readers into the mind of the villain in skillfully controlled first-person interludes. This villain, who remains unidentified for most of the novel, knows intimately about the catacombs and has set up the bomber for personal, non-political reasons.  With motives only gradually revealed, this killer is, improbably, sympathetic at times—such is Evans’s talent at getting inside a character’s head. Despite all that is revealed about the villain, his or her identity will surprise most readers.

The tunnels of the catacombs add a near spectral quality. Faye notes as she follows Cully deeper into the cave-like structures that “in the darkness, she felt like she was stepping out into nothing.” Evans evokes the feel of the catacombs beautifully: “Motes of dust, kicked up by Faye and Cully on their slow passage along the side walls of the long room, danced in the flashlight beam.”

As with the prior books in the series, Faye and Joe are the heart of the story. For those who have not followed this series, Faye is an archaeologist based on fictional Joyeuse Island in the Florida panhandle. She’s petite and mixed-race. Her family history and genealogy could fuel a mini-series. Over a decade-plus, she’s grown from being desperately poor to earning a Ph.D. and owning a business. Along the way, she married Joe Wolfe Mantooth. They’re now parents to an adopted teenage daughter and a young biological son.

Evans earned her M.F.A. in creative writing and her M.S. in chemical engineering. She is a licensed professional engineer. A former resident of Florida, she is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing. Burials, her 2017 entry in the series, appeared on “Best of 2017” lists for both The Strand and True West. The Faye Longchamp books have received several awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Mississippi Author Award, and three Florida Book Awards bronze medals.

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