Book Reviews

Review Rating

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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Exit Actors, Dying by Margot Arnold

Reviewed on: April 1, 2002

Foul Play Press, Woodstock, Vermont
1988 (pb)

With no recent publications (that I know of) of archaeology mysteries/thrillers, I was forced to my bookshelves to find a subject for this month’s review. By doing so, I felt like I had run into some old friends when I happened upon Exit Actors, Dying, the first in the Penny Spring and Sir Toby Glendower mystery series, written by Margot Arnold.

The series includes twelve volumes and presents readers with an even dozen wonderful mysteries of the traditional “cozy” type. The beauty of these little stories (most are about 200 pages in length) is less in plotline than it is in characterization and local color. A few take place in New England and the rest in exotic locations that include France, Italy, Scotland and so on. But the stories ultimately hinge on the two protagonists, Penny Spring and Sir Toby.

Penny is a 50s-something New England-born anthropologist (Ph.D. from Columbia) who is, during the course of the series, a lecturer at Oxford University. She has done fieldwork in the Marquesas, East and South Africa, Uzbekistan, India, and among a variety of Native American cultures in the U.S. Her publications include Sex in the South Pacific (1957), The Position of Women in Pastoral Societies (1962), Moslem Women (1970), among others.

Sir Toby is a Welshman, born a few years before Penny, who earned his doctorate in archaeology from Oxford. As Exit Actors, Dying unfolds, he has participated in more than 30 major archaeological digs and his publications include the very popular What Not to Do in Archaeology (1960) and What to Do in Archaeology (1970). He was knighted in 1977.

Toby and Penny seem to share a truly platonic relationship, based on mutual respect, friendship and shared intellectual interests. They also quarrel like any happily married couple and Penny particularly takes exception to Toby’s love for the fruit of the vine! The relationship is lovingly and subtly developed by Margot Arnold through out the twelve volumes, and would be a joy to read about even if there were no mysteries to solve!

In brief, Exit Actors, Dying finds Penny and Toby touring ancient Greek sites in modern day Turkey. On the stage of a beautifully preserved amphitheatre, Penny literally stumbles over the corpse of a beautiful young woman dressed in the costume of an ancient Greek. She becomes instantly aware that she is being observed by someone standing at the top of the amphitheatre — a huge figure clad in the battle dress of a Roman legionnaire! What follows is an almost keystone cops-type mystery that includes disappearing corpses, the filming of a movie entitled, “The Travels of Telemachus,” (that seems destined for immediate viewing on Mystery Science Theatre 2000), looted artifacts and the age old question, “Well, I wonder who is sleeping with whom?” It’s a wonderfully light story and a great beginning for a series of books of which I am very fond.

Twenty Years in the Trenches: Archaeology in Fiction

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