SITE UNSEEN: AN EMMA FIELDING MYSTERY
By: Dana Cameron
Avon Books, New York
February 2002 (pb)
Itís always a delight to discover a new author who can spin a good
mystery tale, and itís even better when itís a mystery with an
archaeology motif, and itís downright wonderful when itís the
beginning of a new series. Dana
Cameron, the pseudonym for a practicing East Coast archaeologist, has
accomplished this hat trick with her first novel, Site Unseen,
and I hope we can all look forward to a long and productive career
writing Emma Fielding mysteries.
First, the plot: Itís
a fairly convoluted one that begins with the discovery of a corpse close
to an archaeological dig directed by Emma Fielding, a demanding and
driven young assistant professor, who desperately needs success to
continue her climb up the ladder of academic promotion.
He might be the victim of accident or murder. There is the later death, almost certainly murder, of an old
friend who is allowing Emma and her crew to excavate on her property.
There is a thoroughly despicable pothunter who threatens Emma and
her crew and is clearly behind the criminal activities at the siteóa
17th Century English fort located along the Maine coast.
Or is he?
Second, the characters: This
is perhaps what sets Site Unseen apart from many first works by a
new author. The plot is
often engaging and even sometimes bewildering, but the characters are
often one-dimensional at best. Dana
Cameron has lovingly drawn interesting and sympathetic characters, both
the primary and the secondary figures.
Emma is a strong and admirable protagonist, but sheís also
shown to be vulnerableóstruggling with a commuter marriage; the death
of dear friendóa death for which she feels directly responsible; and
fearing that her successes in anthropology are due only to the fact that
sheís the grand daughter of a man who was a scholar of Promethean
reputation in the discipline. The
secondary figures, whether the local sheriff, the graduate students who
make up Emmaís crew, the members of the Caldwell College anthropology
department (a dysfunctional bunch, if ever there was one), or the local
people of coastal Maineóall are described with great care and all
interact in truly human ways. Thereís
not a cookie cutter character in the bunch!
And third, attention to archaeological and academic detail:
Dana Cameron knows her subject matter and conveys that knowledge
with great deftness and often a very keen sense of humor.
Two brief excerpts may demonstrate this skill:
And it was an awkward time in the semester, close enough to the
beginning so that the pressures of midterm did not inspire
attentiveness, and far enough along so that the initial novelty of the
class had worn off. I faced rank after rank of glazed-over
undergraduate faces and wondered briefly what I could do to make them
love it like I did, but AN103, Introduction to Anthropology, lumbered
into the tar pit and died unresisting, in spite of my best efforts to
drag the beat out and resuscitate it. (p.227)
And a description of archaeology lab work with which all who have
tried it can identify:
Normally lab work is something to be delayed as long as possible,
because washing every one of those thousands of little pieces of
ceramic and glass is the most tedious task on earth. There is never
any good way to work; either the plastic washtubs are too high on the
table, and you have to stand, or too low, and you have to hunch over.
Fingertips inevitably become cramped from holding the artifacts
tightly, scrubbed raw from brushing them, and wrinkled from being
submerged in water for hours on end. Labeling the artifacts with their
context coordinates is even worse, with fumes from the marking pens
and the clear varnish used to protect the labels making the students
dizzy, even with the windows open. (p.97)
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