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Four Trowels

THE TORCH OF TANGIER

By: Aileen G. Baron
Poisoned Pen Press: Scottsdale, AZ
2006 (HC)

In this second novel by retired California State University-Fullerton archaeologist, Aileen G. Baron, the reader is reintroduced to Lily Sampson, ABD archaeologist from the University of Chicago.  In 2000, Ms. Baron authored the wonderfully evocative A Fly has a Hundred Eyes, which followed the adventures of graduate student Lily Sampson in 1938 Palestine, as it seethed with pre-World War II angst and terrorist activities of Arabs and Jews against each other and both against the British who held the Mandate to govern this sliver of land that seems never to enjoy a day of peace. 

It is now five years later and Lily is in Morocco, excavating a Neanderthal cave, under the direction of the mysterious archaeologist, Dr. Hammond Drury, who seems to be a bit more than just an esteemed scholar from the University of Chicago.  With more than a tip of the fedora to “Casablanca” and the noir World War II espionage novels of Alan Furst, Ms. Baron spins another engrossing tale that plunges Lily into life-threatening situations, edge of the cliff (literally) escapes, and bittersweet romance that seems to go hand in hand with this romantic era.  Based on the realities of spycraft during the War, Lily is recruited to work as an agent of the United States in its Legation in Tangier.  Initially she is to employ her skills as a scholar to write reports on the indigenous peoples of Morocco and who may be trusted in the Allied war effort against the Nazis in North Africa.  But because of apparent perfidy within the ranks of the Legation, the success of the surprise Allied attack on North Africa from the west (Operation “Torch”) ultimately depends on Lily’s guile and bravery.  Archaeologists and anthropologists were, in fact, recruited by agencies like the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to spy or to act as analysts for the Allies—perhaps the most famous of  all being Julia Child of PBS “French Chef” fame. 

This is a very fine novel in many respects.  Once again, Ms. Baron’s prose evokes a by-gone era of romance, tragedy and heroism.  It tells of a time when there was indeed a clash of civilizations and virtually everyone was called to serve in some capacity to battle the evils of Nazism.  The archaeology is but a brief backdrop to the greater political and military struggle that fills the pages of this book, but it is treated knowledgeably.  As in A Fly has a Hundred Eyes, Aileen Baron again proves to be masterful in creating a sense of place.  With a prose style that can be described as spare (in the best sense of the term), the reader can hear, see and smell the exotic of 1942 Tangier. 

Four trowels for this little masterpiece, and a sincere hope that we’ll read more adventures of Lily Sampson!  

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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.