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3 trowels

THE CADAVER GAME

By: Kate Ellis
Piatkus:  London, England
2012 (pb)

Kate Ellis is, by any definition, a formulaic writer.  She presents the investigations of Detective Inspector Wesley Peterson of the Tradmouth CID in a contemporary murder, the archaeological investigations of Wesley’s best friend, Neil Watson, into some mystery from the distant past, and weaves the stories together in a seamless plotline in which the archaeological excavations shed light on the present-day crime, and in which the complex web of human emotions and actions are explored.   In this, her sixteenth Wesley Peterson mystery, the pattern continues, and in the hands of a less-skilled writer of archaeological mystery/thrillers—and there are many such less-skilled souls---this could become repetitious and tedious. 

But The Cadaver Game does not disappoint.  Wesley and his colleagues must deal with four closely-bunched murders—a woman discovered in a suburban flat, whose identity and history are masked by the decomposition of her body; a young man and his girlfriend, both from upscale backgrounds, who have been naked and shot gunned to death and found at the foot of a seaside bluff close on to the site of Neil Watson’s excavations near Catton Hall ;  and yet another young man of working class background, who has been killed by the blast of a shotgun.   

Meanwhile, Neil and his archaeological understudies have taken a break from their excavation of a military fort from the Napoleonic Era to take on a most unusual contract.  Kevin Orford, a pretentious and egoistic “performance artist” hires the archaeologists to excavate the buried site of his objet d’art from sixteen years earlier—a “Feast of Life” spectacle, or a glorified picnic, from Neil’s viewpoint—on land owned by the last remaining members of the Catton family, Alfred and his son, Richard, who dwell in the decaying “old pile” known as Catton Hall.  The ancient Alfred keeps to himself for the most part, working on his history of Catton Hall’s role in the history of the Devon countryside—particularly the darker deeds of his forebears who reveled, it was rumored, in the hunting down of human quarry turned loose naked in the woodland surrounding Catton Hall—much like the two youngsters recently found dead very nearby! 

Kate Ellis describes the investigative work and forensic research of the police as they puzzle through the identification of the slain woman and the mystery of the murdered youngsters with the same deftness that she employs in describing the archaeological investigations of Neil and his crew—which seem to reach center stage when they discover a skeleton in a trash bag buried with Kevin Orford’s magnum opus of performance art, the now inappropriately titled, “Feast of Life.” 

Ellis builds case upon case of circumstantial evidence that leads the unwary reader to numerous “Aha” moments when he or she believes, “Now I know whodunit,” but it is my bet that most readers will be caught by surprise when the identity of the killer or killers is finally revealed.  Beware, there are red herrings strewn everywhere! 

Three trowels for the sixteenth Wesley Peterson (and Neil Watson) mystery—and may there be many more in the future!     

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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.