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Three Trowels

MORE BITTER THAN DEATH

By: Dana Cameron
Avon Books: New York
2005 (hc)

In this, her fifth entry in the Emma Fielding mysteries, author Dana Cameron continues a pattern that tends to distinguish her novels from other archaeological series.  Whereas most archaeology fiction focuses on field work adventures or the occasional museum mystery, Cameron’s series follows heroine Emma Fielding through a broader array of the discipline’s activities; the previous entry, for instance, A Fugitive Truth, found Emma undertaking bibliographic research in a research library.  The present volume, More Bitter Than Death, finds Emma participating in a professional academic conference. 

The Association for the Study of American Archaeology (ASAA) is convening at the picturesque, bucolic and historic General Bartlett Hotel near Green Bank, New Hampshire.  The setting is ideal for the annual conclave of historic archaeologists—close enough to excavation like Emma’s Fort Providence site at Penitence Point, Maine, yet far enough from the distractions of urban areas so the congregated academicians can concentrate on archaeology—as well as partying and poker.  The hazards of a January conference in New Hampshire also come into play as a howling blizzard sets in, and in something of an homage to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, strange things begin to happen at the General Bartlett Hotel—an establishment that, by the way, does boast its own ghost.  Along with gunshots in the night and pilfered artifacts from displays, the conference guest of honor, the irascible and not very well liked Julius Garrison, the grand old man of Northeast historic archaeology, is found dead almost literally in a snow bank.  He had been honored earlier in the evening for his many years of outstanding research, teaching and contributions to the field, and in his few brief comments following, managed to alienate almost everyone in the audience.   

Accidental death or murder?  Emma is convinced it’s the latter, although even the police seem willing to accept the possibility that a stubborn old man simply insisted on taking his usual evening constitutional, despite the blizzard, and suffered the sad consequences of that decision.  The twists and turns in the plot eventually prove Emma’s suspicions, but not before the reader is exposed to some of the seamy underside of the archaeological profession and Emma’s very life is threatened by more than one dangerous adversary. 

The murder mystery is enriched with a great deal of detail concerning the academic conference that provides the plot’s backdrop.  Some of the scenarios are funny, many are poignant, and some are quite sad; through it all, one has the feeling that Dana Cameron is drawing on personal experiences in similar settings.  From the description of the traditional late-night poker games among old friends and colleagues to the heart to heart discussions Emma has with her graduate students as they face their futures full of both excitement and trepidation—all have a ring of truth to them. 

This is a good novel, well worth reading for both the mystery and the insider view of the profession of archaeology—plus it has a chilling foreshadowing of the next Emma Fielding mystery.

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.