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Archaeology

MURDER AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM . . . Between the covers

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MATBMLondon. 1894. The British Museum has become a crime scene. A distinguished academic and author has been brutally stabbed to death. Not in the hushed corridors, not in the dusty silence of The Reading Room, and not even in one of the stately exhibition halls, under the stony gaze of Assyrian gods and Greek athletes. No, Professor Lance Pickering has been found in the distinctly less grand cubicle of one of the museum’s … ahem …. conveniences, the door locked from inside, and the unfortunate professor slumped over the porcelain.

The police officers from Scotland Yard have been and gone, baffled by the killing. Sir Jasper Stone, Executive Curator-in-Charge at the museum, has called in Daniel Wilson, private consulting detective and his partner, in all senses of the word, Miss Abigail Fenton. Abigail is no stranger to the world of antiquities and academia, as she is a distinguished archaeologist. Wilson has pedigree, as he was a former Metropolitan Police officer, one of the investigative team assembled by Chief Inspector Fred Abberline. Abberline who retired two years earlier is still remembered for his Jack The Ripper investigations, and for his part in the Cleveland Street Scandal, where a raid on a male homosexual brothel was followed by a notorious government cover-up in order to protect some of the brothel’s VIP clients.

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Jim-EldridgeThis is a highly readable mystery with two engaging central characters, a convincing late Victorian London setting, and a plot which takes us this way and that before Daniel and Abigail uncover the tragic truth behind the murders. Jim Eldridge (right) is a veteran writer for radio, television and film as well as being the author of historical fiction, children’s novels and educational books. Murder At The British Museum is published by Allison & Busby, and is out now.

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BETWEEN THE PAGES . . . The Unseen

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Lisa Towles is a California Girl by residence, but she hails from New England. She writes crime novels when she isn’t putting her IT Management MBA to good use in The Sunshine State’s tech industry. Long time followers of Fully Booked will recall my enthusiastic review of her earlier book Choke (2017) and will remember that I began that review with the words:

“Lisa Towles is over-cautious. Said no-one, ever.”

TU051She is back with a vengeance – and that same imaginative flair – with her new mystery thriller The Unseen and the action is just as breathless. We have a story that spans five decades and whirls us between Dublin, the Egyptian desert, Boston Massachusetts, London and Rome. With a cast of larger-than-life characters including archaeologists, journalists, hit men – and a direct descendant of an Eastern Orthodox Pope – the story is never short of surprises and dramatic twists.

The basic plot is that back in 1970, an archaeologist unearths a series of documents which, if they are authentic, could re-write the history of early Christianity. That archaeologist, Rachel Careski, disappears in mysterious circumstances, and the artifacts are believed to be in the safe keeping her brother, Soren. The story moves to 2010,  Soren Careski is long dead, and the secrets of the scrolls are assumed to have accompanied him to the grave.

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lisaWhat starts off in a rather Indiana Jones vein quickly morphs into Robert Langdon territory and there’s no shortage of rapidly-changing locations, sinister ancient manuscripts and malevolent religious freaks. Lisa Towles shows great skill in taking these well-visited elements and stamping her own imprint on them. The Unseen is published by 9mm Press and is out now.

 

Lisa Towles has a Facebook page, her own website, and can be found on Twitter as @bridgit66

THE LOST SHRINE . . . Between the covers

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The LostOn a lonely and ancient hill in south western England, a group of amiable but earnest hippy cranks prepare to celebrate a pagan festival. What their leader finds when he climbs the hill to consummate the ritual sends him reeling and retching to his knees. There, strung up from the trees is a grisly collection of local wildlife, butchered and bloody. That is bad enough, but the centrepiece of this obscene display is – or was – human.

The corpse is that of Beth Kinsella, an intense and controversial archaeologist who has been excavating Bailsgrove Hill prior to much of it being consumed by a building development. She was convinced that the site contained the remains of a rare Bronze Age shrine, much to the frustration of Paul Marshall who, although paying the wages of the dig team has his JCBs and concrete mixers massing on the horizon waiting for the academics with their trowels, sieves and brushes to be gone.

Enter, stage left, Clare Hills. She is an academic who works with Dr David Barbrook. Barbrook’s main job is lecturer, but together with Hills he has established the Hart Unit, a team of archaeologists totally dependent on commercial funding and meagre trickle-down money from the university. Clare’s personal life is anything but robust. She is recently widowed, and finds that her late husband has blown their life savings on failed investments. She is literally scratching out a living with the tools of her trade, but Barbrook asks her to go and complete the work Kinsella started at Bailsgrove.

More corpses – both ancient and modern – are discovered, while Clare Hills is run ragged by a combination of unsettling discoveries about her late husband’s business affairs, and a bizarre conspiracy centred on the  site, involving the dark and devious word of online antiquity sales.

Among the many strong features of this highly readable murder mystery are the delicious sense of place – a real bonus for those who know and love this part of England, – a credibly vulnerable and appealing main character, and a hard-headed knowledge of the problems that archaeologists have in earning any sort of a decent living. One of my sons is a professional archaeologist who spent his degree years immersed in the magic of the past. Now he has a family to house, feed and clothe, so he is on the staff of a major construction company and faces, on a daily basis, the dilemma between recording and – sometimes – preserving the past in the face of commercial and financial pressures.

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The Lost Shrine is published by Allson & Busby and will be out on 23rd May. Nic Ford is the pen name of Dr Nick Snashall (above), National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. My review of her first novel in the Hills and Barbrook series, The Hidden Bones, is here.

For eBook fans, The Lost Shrine is on offer
from 29th May until 5th June at a bargain 99p!

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THE HIDDEN BONES . . . Between the covers

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Strangers to the south of England may be unaware of the rolling uplands known as the Malborough Downs. Also known as the North Wessex Downs, the area is full of important Neolithic and Bronze Age sites as well as being the setting for much of Hardy’s Jude The Obscure and the 1972 best-seller by Richard Adams, Watership Down. Now, the area provides a brooding and often menacing backdrop to The Hidden Bones, the first of a new mystery series written by Nicola Ford.

THB coverClare Hills is an archaeologist who is struggling to hold her life together after the death of her husband. Her grief at his passing is tempered by the fact that he has left her virtually penniless. When she is invited by her former tutor, Dr David Barbrook, to help explore and archive the papers of Gerald Hart, she welcomes the chance to use her expertise. Hart was a gentleman archaeologist whose Palladian villa, Hungerbourne Manor, was the centre of his life’s work – investigating the Hungerbourne Barrows. The Bronze Age burial sites were Hart’s obsession, but whatever secrets they held, he seems to have taken them with him to his grave.

As Hills and Barbrook are soon to discover, Gerald Hart’s work was not without controversy, much of which centred around the discovery of a beautiful ornament known as a Sun Disc, evocatively described thus:

“In his hand he cradled the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Not much bigger than a ten pence piece, an orange-red disc lay at its centre. The ruddy amber disc was encased within a circle of gold decorated with four delicately incised concentric grooves that ran right around its rim.”

Archaeologists must expect, from time to time, to uncover human remains, but these are usually nothing sinister except, perhaps, in the masterly ghost stories of M R James. The problem is, however, that one of the discoveries made by Hills and Barbrook do not date back four millennia: far from it – they are much more recent, and have a chilling significance.

Gerald Hart, like many obsessives, collected friends and enemies with equal ease, and most of these are still in the land of the living. As Hills and Barbrook delve deeper into the affairs of the late archaeologist, they themselves become potential targets for a killer who was involved in the original excavations at Hungerbourne.

Nicola_Ford_smlI have many guilty pleasures, and one of them is being a sucker for a crime novel where the landscape plays a vital part in the plot. My two particular favourite writers in this regard are Phil Rickman and Jim Kelly, but with this excellent debut novel, Nicola Ford (right) has elbowed herself into their company.

The Hidden Bones has all the best elements of a cosy crime novel mystery, but is spiced with both fascinating historical detail and a definite touch of the macabre. It is published by Allison & Busby and will be available on 21st June.

Nicola Ford is an archaeologist who works for the National Trust at Stonehenge, and under her working name of Dr Nick Snashall she regularly appears on national television and radio.

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THE FORGOTTEN…. A series re-evaluating forgotten authors. Part One – Philip Maitland Hubbard

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Fashion in crime fiction, like in all other aspects of life – and literature – is a strange business. Who are the ‘immortals’, and who are the fine writers who have simply vanished from shelves both in the bookshop and the home? The ‘immortals’ number just a handful. I would nominate Conan Doyle, Chandler, Christie and Simenon. There are other writers who have produced books which regularly feature in ‘best of’ lists, such as Capote, Sayers, Du Maurier, Wilkie Collins, Leonard and Highsmith, but whose body of work does not stand up with the four ‘immortals’. This series will focus on a handful of authors whose works, for whatever reason, have passed from mind and familiarity.

PMHOne of my favourite contemporary writers, Phil Rickman, pointed me in the direction of PM Hubbard (left) who wrote English crime novels with just a hint of supernatural menace about them. After a career in public service, he became a full time writer, and contributing to  the magazine Punch as well as writing verse, both of which activities contrast strongly with his dark novels. Although Hubbard died in 1980 his books are still available, and although I have come late to the feast, I can still savour the meat. This is the first of a two part examination of Hubbard’s writing.

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FAMFlush As May (1963) takes its title from a soliloquy by Hamlet, and Hubbard sets the piece in an ostensibly idyllic rural England, contemporary with the time of the novel’s publication. Margaret Canting is an Oxford undergraduate staying in the nearby village of Lodstone She takes it upon herself to see in May Morning, not by carolling from the top of a church tower, but with a dawn stroll. Her idyll is interrupted when she finds the corpse of a man, sleeping his final sleep against the grassy bank at the edge of a field.

She strides back into Lodstone and rouses the village policeman, PC Robin. His scepticism about her discovery is confirmed when the pair arrive at the scene to find – absolutely nothing. Humiliated by the constable’s scorn, Margaret returns to her B & B, having briefly made the acquaintance of a young chauffeur at the roadside. She learns, upon her return to Oxford, that his name is Jacob Garrod and that he is a fellow undergraduate. The pair meet for a drink, and Margaret reveals the full story of her May Morning adventure.

Together, the pair decide to get the bottom of the mystery of the missing corpse, with the assistance of one or two of Margaret’s well connected relatives. What has so far been something of a ‘jolly jape’ becomes infinitely more serious when they discover that an unholy alliance of old established farming families in and around Lodstone has an unhealthy influence on local events.

This is a lighter novel than those which followed, and there is plenty of gentle humour, such as when Jacob  tries to find out more about the agricultural mafia by attending a cattle auction:

“…..where he bid unsuccessfully for a lot of heifers whose air of gentle bewilderment appealed to him. They attended the event placidly, like a consignment of Circassian virgins under the hammer in ancient Rome …”

But as if he were holding his fire until he could see the whites of our eyes, Hubbard gently ramps up the music of unease by turning our attention – alongside that of Margaret and Jacob – to the landscape itself. We discover that the residents of Lodstone and their ancestors have an allegiance to the shape of the hills and fields that is fired by a folk memory which stretches back much further than the laws and conventions of either the Christian church or the civil justice system. The climax of the story brings Margaret face to face with the very embodiment of an ancient evil.

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Hubbard_The_Tower_GreenThe Tower (1968) begins with Hubbard tipping his hat in a gentlemanly fashion in the direction of a lady. The lady is none other than Dorothy L Sayers. Her masterpiece (other opinions are available), The Nine Tailors, begins with Bunter and Lord Peter abandoning their car in a snowy ditch outside a remote Fenland village. So it is that John Smith, the central character in The Tower, finds his car refusing to travel an inch further on an inky black night, a mile or so outside the village of Coyle. That, however is pretty much where the homage ends. Coyle is a far more sinister place that Fenchurch St Peter, and its vicar, Father Freeman, is infinitely less benevolent than dear old Reverend Venables.

After roadside assistance provided by a mysterious young woman Smith is able to get as far as The Bell, Coyle’s only pub. Given a room for the night, Smith signs the register with an all-too-familiar misgiving.

“That was the trouble with John Smith. They always expect you to bring in a giggling blonde with the wrong initials on her suitcase.”

Smith realises, as he drinks his pint of strong bitter and eats the meal provided by the landlord’s wife, that the customers of The Bell are not the average clientele of a rural boozer. He eavesdrops on a fairly foul-mouthed argument, but then:

“A man started to sing, casually, as if he was singing to himself, but loud enough to be heard above the general uproar. Gloria Deo – ‘ he sang, with a long twisting run of notes ….two more voices took it up in different parts, a very sweet clear tenor led the way into Et Filio, and by the time ‘Sancto was reached he counted four parts going great guns with several voices to each.”

Clearly, this is not a regulation saloon bar singsong. Smith’s curiosity is aroused, and he decides to stay for a few days. He meets local academic, Charles Hardcastle, and his daughter Cynthia – who he realises immediately is the enigmatic wraith who repaired his car the night before. Hardcastle – and George Curtis, Landlord of The Bell – explain to Smith, in very different ways, what is going on in the village.

The tower of Coyle’s parish church (dedicated to the fictional St Udan) is structurally compromised due to a series of unwise modifications over the last century. Father Freeman is obsessed with raising the £20,000 it would take to restore the tower and make it safe. His only hope of raising the cash is the benevolence of Mrs Mary Garstin, the widow of Sir Gerald Potter, and heir to his land and fortune. She has remarried, unhappily, and seems strangely drawn to the menacing priest.

John Smith and Cynthia Hardcastle are drawn into Coyle’s business, and find that it is far from straightforward, and that Father Freeman’s zeal is linked to something far older than his avowed Christianity. The conclusion of the novel is violent and incendiary. In addition, without writing anything remotely explicit by today’s standards, Hubbard bestows Mary Garstin with an erotic persona which is all the more startling, given the rural conformity and apparent benevolence of her surroundings.

PART TWO of this account of the writing of PM Hubbard will follow

 

 

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