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3 trowels


By: Malcolm Shuman
Avon Books:  New York
November 1998 (PB)

Several years ago I reviewed the first of Malcolm Shuman’s Alan Graham mysteries, Burial Ground, and the final entry, The Last Mayan.  I was very sorry to see the series grind to a halt due to the vagaries of the publishing world, but I’ve decided to review yet another of these little gems in the hopes that a reader or two might be tempted to log on to and pick one up for a delightful read.

Alan Graham is the low-key unassuming proprietor of an archaeological contract firm headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  One of the delights of Malcolm Shuman’s description of Alan and his chosen career is the faithful portrayal of the life and times of a contract archaeologist—the treadmill existence of seeking and bidding on new contracts while conducting present projects while completing reports on completed surveys.  Add to this a shovel crew drawn from some of the further edges of society and the demanding oversight of the aptly named Corps of Engineers contract officer, Bertha Bomberg (aka La Bombast) and you almost have the material for a TV sit-com.  Fortunately for the reader, Alan Graham also has the tendency to attract conmen, looters, killers and other assorted scalawags to his innocent CRM projects! 

The Meriwether Murder presents the most beguiling of the Alan Graham mysteries and leans heavily on one of American history murkiest episodes—the death of explorer Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame.  Alan’s firm has been hired by the Corps to survey a stretch of Mississippi River levee on the antebellum Desiree plantation.  Alan’s attention is drawn to a lone gravestone simply marked, “Louis, died July 3, 1863.”  While seeking background historical documentation on Desiree for his survey report, Alan and his historical archaeologist colleague/lady friend (he wishes!) Pepper Courtney, are introduced to the owner of Desiree, the very elderly and nursing home-bound, Ouida Fabre.  She has in her possession journals from the 19th Century that include interesting tidbits of information about the mysterious Louis, who was fished out of the river in 1811.  Badly hurt and near death, he was nursed back to health and lived out the remainder of his days as a handy man, or “mechanic” at Desiree—but with apparently no memory of anything prior to his rescue.  Further research brings to light additional historical documents that point to an incredible possibility:  that the mysterious “Louis” may have been, in fact, Meriwether Lewis!  The only real problem with that possibility is the generally accepted historical fact that Meriwether Lewis died by his own hand in 1809 near Chickasaw Bluffs (now Memphis), Tennessee, as he raced to Washington, DC and President Thomas Jefferson, in an attempt to clear his name of scandal  A National Park Service monument marks his burial there.

Modern day mayhem accompaniers the unraveling of this nearly 200 year old mystery as the caretaker at Desiree dies in a mysterious fire, Alan’s home is ransacked and an inquisitive reporter, who has been investigating the tie-in between the caretaker’s death and the mystery burial at Desiree, is brutally murdered.  As Alan and Pepper try to puzzle out the strands that connect these occurrences separated by almost two centuries, Alan finds himself not only the number one suspect by the local police but also the number one target of the modern day killer. 

This is a very entertaining mystery, with good, strong characterization, and the imaginative use of an historical event that is still subject to speculation and revision.  Malcolm Shuman proposes a most interesting possibility concerning the death of a true American hero, Meriwether Lewis.

Three trowels.

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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.