Published by Covenant Communications, 268 pages, $14.95
Reviewed by Jennie Hansen
Digging up the Past is another new LDS novel set in the Southwest, though this one goes much further south than the other recent novels, to Arizona. After reading several recent Southwest novels and being tipped off by the blurb on the back of the book that this book stars an archaeology professor and takes place primarily during a summertime dig, I was less than enthused about reading it since I find archeology a rather dry subject. Only the fact that Kerry Blair, who is a consistently entertaining writer, is listed as one of the authors stirred me to begin reading. As I read, I found myself thoroughly engrossed. Though nothing like Sister Blair’s other books, this one is definitely a keeper. As team writers seasoned Blair and first-time novelist Wolfe are winners.
The story begins with the discovery by Jayce McDermott of his Hopi Indian assistant’s body in a recently excavated fourteenth century Hopi pit house. He calls the local undersheriff to report the murder and when the law officer and his deputy arrive they arrest Jayce for the crime. Jayce’s relationship with the local law enforcement duo is already precarious since he has tried repeatedly without success to get them to investigate the theft of valuable artifacts from the dig site at Coyote Springs. It is also well known that Dr. McDermott and his recently deceased assistant argued frequently and each suspected the other of stealing the missing artifacts.
If sitting in jail for a crime he didn’t commit isn’t bad enough, the FBI agent who shows up to investigate the murder is an old friend of Jayce’s whom he hasn’t seen for many years. Jayce has never forgotten Meredith McKay, a girl he fell in love with as a teenager. Seeing her again, he realizes he still has strong feelings for her. He never shared his feelings with her before because she was his best friend’s girlfriend. Just as he was leaving on his mission a tragedy occurred that caused Meredith to leave their hometown and the two lost touch, though his grandmother occasionally heard from her and passed on tidbits of information to him. He has day-dreamed of meeting her again, but certainly not as the major suspect in one of her cases.
Meredith is nervous about meeting Jayce again and knows instinctively that her old friend is too honorable to have committed either the theft of artifacts or murder. The murder victim was an undercover FBI agent who appeared to have been distracted by the missing Hopi artifacts from the drug investigation that brought him to Coyote Springs. The man’s derailed investigation is the real reason Meredith arrives in town before the Bureau even receives word of their agent’s death. When she learns how flimsy Undersheriff Stickle’s evidence is, she arranges for Jayce’s release and takes over the case since the crime occurred on government land managed by the BLM and therefore falls under federal jurisdiction.
Meredith doesn’t arrive on the scene alone. She is accompanied by a half-grown pit bull named Fang who demolishes her motel room their first night in town. She pays for the damage, but has to find other quarters for the pup. Jayce can’t refuse her request to keep the dog with him in his dilapidated trailer at the dig though he dislikes dogs and finds this one more trouble than he bargained for. At least it provides him with an excuse to see Meredith on a daily basis and the students working the dig love the animal.
A complicated book, Digging Up The Past weaves together several plot lines with generous helpings of fascinating Hopi customs and lore both from the fourteenth century and current reservation life. The authors don’t attempt to downplay the dreary digging in the dirt aspect of archeology, but they do outline the digging process in a manner that enables the reader to understand the process better. They also make clear the culture clashes between government interests, scientists who wish to learn more about the past, greedy antiquities hunters who wish to profit from the sale of artifacts, and a native culture’s religious and ethnic heritage. The authors do an outstanding job of bringing the Arizona desert, reservation, and dusty small towns to life as they discover, identify, and demonstrate the value various factions place on remnants from Arizona’s past.
The murder mystery is fast -paced and exciting, the clues well-concealed, and the stakes believable. Even when the real villain becomes obvious, the story does not lose its pace as the action shifts to proof and resolution rather than “whodunnit.” Meredith’s spiritual awakening is subtle, but believable. Possibly more emphasis on the weakness of her testimony prior to the tragedy that tore her and her friends apart would have been useful, though those readers with committed testimonies will recognize from her actions that her earlier Church membership was based more on a desire to be with her friends than on personal faith. The third element of this story, the romance between Jayce and Meredith is the weakest of the multiple plot lines. Their growing attachment and friendship is well-developed, as is their concern for each other’s welfare, but the misunderstanding that kept them apart as teenagers and keeps Jayce believing Meredith still loves the friend she dated through high school and Meredith believing Jayce can’t love her because of her part in his best friend’s death is a little too contrived. Brief misunderstandings can be tolerated, but when the hero and heroine are kept apart for an entire book by a misunderstanding that could be cleared up in five minutes of honest dialogue the romance is weakened.
There are moments of delightful humor in the book, though not as much as we generally expect from Kerry Blair. The references to Undersheriff Sickel as Undersheriff Sicko and Deputy Dodge as Deputy Dawg are used at just the right moments for maximum play. The pit bull pup, though a serious element in the story, still invites laughter on several occasions. Though not a point of humor, it is a nice twist to have the heroine the rescuer and protector instead of delegating those roles to the male protagonist.
Digging Up The Past is well-written, well-researched, and a delight through and through. This reader hopes we will see more collaboration by Blair and Wolfe.