“Plunder,” by Mary Anna Evans

Review by Philip K. Jason

Poisoned Pen Press. 306 pages. $24.95 hardback, $14.95 trade paper.

This latest adventure of Ms. Evans’ protagonist, archaeologist Faye Longchamp, has many centers of interest. Faye is at work in the area where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. That is, she is in Louisiana not far from New Orleans. Her client, a major environmental firm, has asked her to perform a routine archaeological survey. However, it is no longer quite so routine, as the Deepwater Horizon crisis, with crude oil approaching the Gulf coast, amplifies the urgency of the survey many times over.

Mary Anna Evans

Faye, accompanied by her husband (Native American Joe Mantooth) and their one-year old son, is drawn into a strange situation that involves a teenager, Amande, whose grandmother and uncle are suddenly murdered. These murders occur soon after Amande’s mother, who had abandoned her to the grandmother’s care, dies of illness. Inheritance vultures are circling, but just what is it that is at stake? These are extremely poor people, though hardly salt-of-the-earth types.

What ties the murders and the jockeying for inheritance claims and the positioning for guardianship rights together?

It can’t be just the houseboat that Amande has lived on with her grandmother, or the few pieces of old coins and other relics that Amande has collected. No. There must be much more.

And there is: sunken treasure from the days when pirates roamed and sometimes ruled. Amande has an inheritance share of a small island that might be a key to finding and claiming those treasures.

Is the murderer eliminating other heirs? Is Amande in jeopardy? What can Faye and Joe do to protect this young woman whom, soon after meeting her, they greatly admire and respect – even love?

The novel’s ongoing present involves a race toward the resolution of these questions, a race accelerated by the enormous, spreading oil catastrophe that is threatening to foul the waters and the coastline. It represents a different kind of plunder and a different kind of piracy. How different, asks Mary Anna Evans, is pirate greed from petroleum greed? Who or what must die when plunderers battle to extract the riches of the New World?

The readers of “Plunder” will learn a great deal about the history of the Mississippi Delta region and about the unique weave of cultural strands that characterize it today. In addition, reading Ms. Evans’ series is an ongoing lesson in archaeology.

Special attractions in “Plunder” include the exquisite characterization of young Amande. Few sixteen year olds face her predicament of isolation and threat, and few show her maturity, her resourcefulness, and her determination. We can see why Faye and Joe want to help her.

The author develops the teenager’s character, in part, through the fascinating interchapters in which we hear Amande’s voice recording episodes for “The Podcast I Never Intend to Broadcast.” In these vignettes, Amande retells and comments on the vaguely ancestral tales her late grandmother, Miranda, had told her over the years:  tales of “the deep delta country, way below New Orleans in the between-land where the Mississippi pours itself into the Gulf.” These focus mainly on an escaped slave named Gola George, who developed a pirate venture, and his sometimes ally and subordinate Henry the Mutineer. The story within the story adds richly to the scope and atmosphere of “Plunder.”

Also quite alluring is the complex portrait of scientist-businesswoman Faye Longchamp in her maternal role with little Michael and her fierce warrior role as protector of Amande.

“Plunder” includes a colorful cast of low-life villains (just about all of Amande’s greedy relatives), attractive local characters like Manny, and well-individualized functionaries like social worker Sally Smythe, Amande’s lawyer Bernard Reuss, and Detective Benoit. Throw in a bit of voodoo, a drumbeat of suspense, and all of the ingredients add up to a wonderful treat for the mind and heart of any reader.

 [This review also appears in the March 22, 2012 issue of Naples Florida Weekly.]

Mississippi-born Mary Anna Evans, who has long resided in the Gainesville, Florida area, has established herself as a major contemporary Southern writer. She has been awarded a Mississippi Library Association Mississippi Author Award and the Florida Historical Society’s Patrick D. Smith Florida Literature Award, among other distinctions.

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