Book Reviews

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With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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St. Oswald’s Niche by Laura Frankos

Reviewed on: January 1, 2010


Ivy Books: New York
1991 (pb)

This long out-of-print little gem is an old-fashioned “cozy” mystery with a strong history and archaeology framework behind it. It would be a perfect read for a blustery winter weekend!

Jennet Walker, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in medieval history, is in London to give a paper on Anglo-Norman studies, when the novel opens. A side trip to Canterbury has her meeting, unbeknownst to her, Professor Edwin Durrell, one of the world’s leading medieval scholars. In true graduate student fashion, she delivers an impromptu, rather pedantic, lecture on Thomas a Becket. She discovers who Durrell really is—much to her embarrassment– when he appears to listen to her paper back in London!

But to her relief, she finds that not only was Durrell amused by her Beckett lecture on the streets of Canterbury, but he was very impressed by the erudition of her paper and the research behind it—so much so that he offers her a job as his assistant on an archaeology excavation in the Abbey of St. Oswald of Northumbria in the city of York. She hesitates at first—she much prefers the comforts of nice, warm libraries to the dirt and drudgery of excavation—but Durrell requires an assistant who is knowledgeable in medieval Latin and German, to help edit his forthcoming book on medieval monasticism, help him transcribe excavation notes, and most importantly, to help him translate manuscript chronicles of the Abbey recently unearthed by his crew. She excitedly accepts his offer and eagerly moves into the dormitory in York that houses not only the crew from Durrell’s St. Oswald project, but also other young archaeologists working two other local excavations: a Roman site and a Viking dig.

Her experience begins with the exciting discovery of a treasure hoard found in one of the niches beneath the abbey—a hoard that includes a silver casket, coins, paintings, and four gold chalices, one of which Durrell shows to a gathering at his home, a gathering that includes crew members from all three York projects. But Jennet’s experience begins to turn sour as she quickly senses the hostility of Leslie Stafford, her predecessor as Durrell’s assistant, and matters turn even grimmer when items begin disappearing from the rooms of the various crew members, and suspicions are cast in Jennet’s direction. Then tragedy strikes the St. Oswald project when the treasure is stolen from its storage area in the Abbey, and only the gold chalice, which Durrell had kept in his home for the aforementioned gathering, remains. As the newest person on the project, even more suspicions are directed at Jennet.

What follows is the chronicle of the unraveling of the sense of camaraderie among and between the crews working on the three York-based projects as each member seems to become more secretive, suspicions widen to include virtually everyone and threatens to tear apart the very fabric of the little archaeological community. Jennet and Matthew Jonas, a fellow American and UCLA Ph.D. candidate in Classics, team up to try to solve the mystery of the vanished treasure trove, but the hunt turns dangerous as first Matt is attacked by an unseen assailant as he searched dorm rooms for clues, and then later Jennet is accosted by a figure dressed in the robes of a medieval cleric—complete with miter and crosier!

While the hunt for the missing treasure goes on by both the police and the archaeologists, another niche is opened and more treasure is found—including what may be the remains of Girard, a notorious 12th Century archbishop of York, who been accused in his time of necromancy and other ecclesiastical crimes. Could Jennet’s assailant be the shade of Archbishop Girard—a ghost displeased with the predations of the archaeologists? Or more likely, was it the Abbey thief, intent upon discouraging further investigations and who might very well be plotting to snatch the rest of the St. Oswald treasure?

The reader will have to find out for him or herself the answer to the question of whodunit plus the answers to other questions, not the least of which is will Matthew, who seems incredibly clueless for a really smart guy, ever figure out that he really loves Jennet and that she’s crazy about him? The reader may also glean a significant amount of knowledge about medieval ecclesiastical history and culture and have fun while doing it!

While long out of print, copies for as little as one cent (plus postage) can be purchased from Three trowels for this cute little cozy mystery.

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William Gresens, longtime MVAC supporter and volunteer, has been writing reviews of archaeological fiction as MVAC’s book reviewer for twenty years.  In this interview Bill shares how he got started writing reviews for MVAC, how the genre has changed, highlights, and his thoughts looking forward. 

Bill Gresen’s Book Review 20th Anniversary

While Bill's reviews go back 20 years now, his relationship with MVAC goes back more than twice that long! The reviews capture some of the things we enjoy most about Bill-- he's perceptive, methodical, a clear thinker, and a whole lot of fun! We look forward to this relationship--and Bill's reviews!--continuing for many years to come.

The March 2021 review marks the 20th anniversary of reviews of archaeological fiction.  It has been my pleasure and great fun to while away the hours reading these books—for the most part, at least—and writing the reviews!  My thanks to MVAC allowing me to prattle on and I look forward to the years ahead.

Bill Gresens