“Undercurrents,” by Mary Anna Evans

Mary Anna Evans

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Author Mary Anna Evans never disappoints.

That’s rare for authors of a long-running mystery series because the confines of the genre, compounded with the repetition of characters, often leads to staleness. But Evans’s Faye Longchamp archaeological mystery series is emphatically not stale.

Evans proves as much in her eleventh novel in the series, Undercurrents, which is as fresh, original, and engrossing as the first book in the series. And Evans’s writing—like that of her protagonist Faye—only gets better and deeper.

Combining history, mystery, intriguing characters, settings, and archaeology, Evans keeps the suspense high. There’s more intrigue to the story than just its mystery. Set in Memphis, Tennessee, this story involves a poor African-American community, compassion, economics, and racism. Multi-faceted characters, each of their plots woven intricately, add to the novel’s vibrancy.

Faye Longchamp-Mantooth 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 in the series, she’s grown from being desperately poor to earning a PhD and owning a business. Along the way, she married Joe Wolfe Mantooth. They’re now parents to an adopted teenage daughter and their young biological son.

Faye is smart, analytical, driven, brave, and loving. She investigates messes and murders with a genuine desire to help people in trouble. This time the beneficiary of her kindness is Kali, a young girl.

Kali and Faye are the emotional heart of Undercurrents. Faye travels to Memphis to assess a site for possible development in fictional Sweetgum State Park. She needs the work and reluctantly leaves Joe at home with their children. Before any development takes place, park officials want Faye to analyze the area for its potential historical significance. A group of segregated African-Americans worked here as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Before Faye and her crew begin their assessment, two things happen: Faye spots Kali wandering alone in the woods, and the next day an archeologist finds the corpse of a brutally beaten woman who had been buried alive.

Evans reveals both Faye’s perceptiveness and Kali’s vulnerability in just three sentences:

[Faye] studied the girl, far ahead of her in the creek. By her best guess, she was looking at two-days-since-somebody-fixed-it hair, which is a far cry from the hair of a ten-year old living alone. Some of the braids were starting to fray, but most of the multicolored plastic barrettes still held. A lot of kids’ hair looked like that in the summertime.

Worried about Kali’s safety, Faye follows her and they have a tense exchange before Kali begins to warm toward Faye. Kali still distrusts this stranger, but they bond nonetheless.

The next day, Faye hears an ominous noise on her way to work. Sounds coming from the dirt suggest someone, a woman, may be buried alive. Faye frantically digs and calls 9-1-1 for help. When paramedics and law enforcement arrive, Faye—a woman of color—finds the white detective views her with suspicion.

The buried woman, Kali’s mother, later dies. Faye distrusts the law’s ability to protect the child from her mother’s killer. Concerns for Kali, and a need to find justice for the victim, lead Faye to her own investigation. Faye uncovers hints that a serial killer is to blame—and that Kali saw something that puts her in danger.  When the killer suspects Faye is getting too close, he targets her and Kali.

Most of the book is written from Faye’s point of view, though Evans gives glimpses into the killer’s perspective. The killer narrates for a time without giving away his identity. As he stalks Kali and Faye, his twisted explanations sound authentically pathological.

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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