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 Four Trowels

THE FALL OF AUGUSTUS

By: Sarah Wisseman
Wings ePress:  Richmond, KY
2009 (PB)

Sarah Wisseman’s third archaeology mystery featuring archaeology museum curator Lisa Donohue is her strongest entry thus far.  The novel opens with the staff of the Boston University museum moving to a new state-of-the-art building and all the excitement and angst that goes with such an undertaking.  Then, in the blinking of an eye, the cable snaps that is lowering the massive statue of Caesar Augustus down the old museum’s elevator shaft and the highly-respected, sometimes loved, but always penny pinching museum director, Victor Fitzgerald, is smooshed.  The ensuing police investigation would seem to hint strongly that the cable was cut and that murder most foul was the intention. 

Lisa Donahue finds herself in the uncomfortable position of being named acting director and being a suspect in the apparent homicide.  While Lisa isn’t crazy about every one of her colleagues, she fails to sense that any of them would have a motive to kill Victor.  There are intrigues a-plenty going on within the hallowed halls of the museum, and it does take on the aura of a somewhat dusty and fussy little Peyton Place.  Lisa’s situation is complicated further when the 4th Century BC “Bryn Mawr Torque (referenced in the first novel in this series, Bound for Eternity) is stolen during the moving operation.  The imperious Dean Saltonstall shows little confidence in Lisa’s executive skills and after only a month brings in Valerie Albrecht to be the permanent museum director—the same Valerie Albrecht who was Lisa’s professional and personal nemesis when she worked in a Philadelphia museum years earlier.   

Valerie proves to be a perfect harridan in her new position and soon alienates virtually everyone on the museum staff and a full-scale rebellion seems to be brewing when another Celtic artifact goes missing during the move.  Could the thefts be tied to the untimely death of Victor Fitzgerald?  But no!  Sergeant McEwan of the Boston PD, and a recurring character from Bound for Eternity, stuns the museum staff with the news that the cable lowering the statue of Augustus broke from material stress, not deliberate cutting.  There was no murder! 

Nonetheless, Valerie continues her non-stop harassment of the museum staff until even Saltonstall realizes his mistake, fires her, and re-instates Lisa as director.  Just when the good times seem to be returning to the good folks at the Boston University Museum, tragedy again strikes when Lisa discovers the lifeless body of Valerie Albrecht in a museum storeroom, her head perforated with a Greek transport amphora!  But when Sergeant McEwan and his crew arrive on the scene, the body has gone missing and Lisa’s truthfulness is put in doubt.  All doubt is removed, however, when Valerie’s body is found several days later in the Egyptian-African storeroom—bound as a poorly embalmed and badly wrapped and putrefying mummy!  Did someone hate Valerie so much that he or she stove in her head and then desecrated her body?  Or, as Lisa begins to wonder, are there two crazy people running around in the labyrinthine hallways and storerooms of the old museum—one who killed her and another who stole her body and desecrated her? 

Sarah Wisseman has written a clever, erudite museum murder mystery, and in so doing has sharpened her craft as a writer.  I liked her earlier entries but noted that her characters often seemed stiff and self-absorbed and the dialogue was often quite wooden.  Those traits are few and far between in The Fall of Augustus; it’s as if Ms. Wisseman’s characters are gaining self-confidence at the same time she is becoming more comfortable with her craft and is becoming a very fine mystery writer.     Four trowels for The Fall of Augustus.

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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.