Plunder by Mary Anna Evans
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not against reading legal tracts. Indeed, I’ve just finished a consultancy job involving American insurance law and practice — if someone offers to cross my palm with silver, my mercenary streak kicks in even though I’m officially retired. But I usually balk at reading law for fun. Indeed, by coincidence, I’ve just waded through a courtroom drama full of people spouting law given half the chance which was a less than enjoyable experience. So early on, I realise the outcome of Plunder by Mary Anna Evans (Poisoned Pen Press, 2012) is going to depend on the law of usufruct as practised in Louisiana. Now I used to have some passing familiarity with this concept in Roman law as later applied in France, but Louisiana was always too far off the map for me to bother with. Now, however, all readers of this book have to wrestle with some of the detail of this obscure remnant of Roman law. Those damned French settlers abandoned it in the bit of the south they owned before selling it to the US. If you want to sort out the motive for these murders, some familiarity with the local law of inheritance is a must. I do not exaggerate when I tell you this requires considerable intestinal fortitude. Fortunately, the rest of the book is a more than adequate counterbalance.
When you start reading a book, all the usual prejudices kick in as you begin to explore an author new to you and to understand the characters. The first impression is mixed (ignoring the legal track mentioned above). We’re into the world of archaeology in service of the environment. Our late-blooming Faye Longchamp is using her knowledge to survey the Mississippi delta before any oil arrives from the loss of The Deepwater Horizon. This involves people walking the recorded sites of interest that may be at risk should the oil come into the delta and then onshore. The project is overseen by Faye and Joe Wolf Mantooth, her Native American husband, who relies on his tracker skills to spot the odd piece of potentially interesting stuff sticking out of the ground. But their task is complicated by the presence of Michael, their baby son. Initially, they rely on Dauphine but, when she’s injured, they are short one nanny. I propose to ignore the temptation to discuss whether responsible parents should be traipsing their infant around this area, notorious for its snakes, alligators and other dangerous creatures. Go out into the salt water and there are sharks. Let’s put all this to one side because a murder interrupts their life of commercial enterprise. Yes, you guessed it. In her six previous adventures, Faye Longchamp has demonstrated she enjoys a good murder. She’s got one of these analytical minds that digs down into the morass of facts and pulls out just the right pieces of information to solve the crime — with some help from Joe, of course.
I should say a few words about Joe. He’s one of these strong silent types you would always prefer to have on your side if there should be a fight. In terms of stereotype, there’s a fierce warrior under a calm exterior and, like Tonto, he’s happy to play second fiddle to his wife as the one with the credentials and the earning capacity. Fortunately, the stereotype suits him to her work which, in this instance, is the preservation of the environment and respect for the past and the places important to the Native American ancestors. I’ve already mentioned his ability as a tracker. To my mind, it’s an almost perfect stereotype.
Anyway, the murder is an excuse to meet the victim’s family which includes the sixteen-year-old Amande. She lives on a houseboat with her grandmère Miranda — because this is Louisiana, the dear old stick is a voodoo practitioner and much respected in the local community. This girl is a perfect candidate for nanny. When Miranda is also found floating in the bayou (couldn’t resist including this word even though this part of the Mississippi is not a bayou), and a dispute arises over who should take over parental responsibility, her post as nanny is a lock-in. The list of suspects narrows down to the relatives and others who might have a claim in the estate. Given that Faye is an archaeologist and a number of treasure ships sank or pirates buried their loot in this area, the biggest clue could lie in whatever land is included in the estate. As you will expect, there’s a scuba diver lurking and checking out all the local maps. He’s obviously convinced there’s something to be found — a fact made more likely by the silver coins Amande has already picked up.
So where are we in all this? After a slightly slow start, Plunder turns into a very interesting mystery for Faye Longchamp to solve with a particularly ingenious solution to the archaeological puzzle at the end. Although I’m not complaining, there’s also a shift in the subgenre from amateur detective mystery to thriller as we come into the final furlong. Suffice it to say the child welfare department might have some input after reading this account of Faye’s exploits. Taken altogether, Plunder has plenty of local colour and interestingly venal family members looking for their share in whatever’s going, making this an entertaining read for those who enjoy watching clever people think through a problem to its solution.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.