Updated: Jun 29
Archaeologists love a mystery. There's no time llike the present to read some crime classics so here’s five killer reads to help you dig into Britain’s most popular literary genre.
No.5: Death Comes at the End (1944) by Agatha Christie. The Queen of Crime wrote a string of novels with archaeology settings – Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Death on the Nile (1937), Appointment with Death (1938), They Came to Baghdad (1951), The Adventure of The Egyptian Tomb: Poirot Investigates (1968).
Christie gained a great deal of archaeological knowledge working on excavations all over the Middle East with her second husband Sir Max Mallowan.
Death Comes as the End is a little different. An historical whodunit set in Egypt 2000BC, the plot is based on real letters from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. They concern Heqanaknt’s complaints to his family about the treatment of his new concubine. It’s the only one of Christie’s novels not set in the 20th Century. However, in true Christie fashion the body count is soon rising as jealousy, fear and revenge sweep through this ancient Thebes household. It’s also one of only four Christies stories that have never been adapted for stage or screen. However, the BBC recently announced plans to film the novel.
No.4 The Tomb of Zeus (2007) by Barbara Cleverly. It’s the 1920s and the spirited young archaeologist Laetitia Talbot is set to take the world by storm. Raised in a progressive bohemian household she’s intent on breaking down academic and social barriers in the quest to make her name. Her first assignment in Crete, where a charismatic archaeologist believes he may have discovered the tomb of the king of the gods. But soon a woman is found hanged and a young man appears to have driven off a cliff and all is not as it seems at the Villa Europa. The smart and determined Letty needs all her knowledge and courage to untangle a dark web of past loves, jealousy and ancient myths.
Barbara Cleverly is also the author of the multi award-winning series featuring Joe Sandilands, the Scotland Yard detective and WW1 hero.
No.3 The Merchant’s House by Kate Ellis. (1998) The first of 20 novels featuring the archaeology graduate turned detective Wesley Peterson. On his first day of his new posting in Tradmouth, south Devon, Detective Sergeant Peterson is investigating the murder of a woman on the cliff path while his new colleagues search for a missing child. He meets old university friend archaeologist Neil Watson who’s running a dig at a 17th century merchant’s house in the town. He’s just unearthed the skeletons of a woman and child buried beneath the floor. Soon parallels emerge between the past and the present. Kate Ellis skilfully weaves together police procedure and archaeological practise. For DS Peterson, Tradmouth’s first black police officer, the dig provides a respite from pressures at home and work, and a chance to reconnect with his past. It also helps provide the clues that will ultimately help him solve present day crimes and prevent further tragedy.
No.2: The Crocodile on the Sandbank (1975) by Elizabeth Peters. Set in the 1890s, Miss Amelia Peabody is the thirty-something heroine of 20 archaeological murder mysteries. Armed with her trusty parasol ‘I had to apply the ferrule quite sharply to the backs of several gentleman before they would move,’ she is ready for anything the world, ancient or modern, can throw at her. Victorian excavators are charmed and alarmed in equal measure by the forthright and unstoppable Miss Peabody.
In this, her first Egyptian adventure, she rescues the young heiress Evelyn Barton-Forbes from ruin and abandonment on the streets of Rome. Together they sail up the Nile, arriving at the excavation site run by the Emerson Brothers. Soon an alarming and decidedly lively Egyptian Mummy is causing havoc and Amelia must rescue Evelyn and the excavation from its attentions.
These sparkling and witty novels feature real excavations, techniques and people from the golden age of Egyptian archaeology. It’s no surprise to learn then that Elizabeth Peters is the pseudonym of Barbara Louise Metz who gained a PhD in Egyptology in 1952 and also wrote highly regarded textbooks on the subject. Prepare to be informed and entertained.
No.1 The Crossing Places (2009). Bang up to date is Elly Griffiths forensic archaeologist, Dr Ruth Galloway who combines lecturing at the fictional University of North Norfolk with consultancy work for the local constabulary. In the first novel of a still growing series, The Crossing Places begins with the discovery of an Iron Age skeleton grave containing a child’s skeleton. The find has resonances for Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, still troubled by the unsolved case of a child who disappeared ten years ago. When a second child vanishes from their back garden Nelson fears the killer has struck again. The race is on for Ruth and Nelson to unravel a series of cryptic clues contained in letters written by someone with knowledge of ancient ritual practises.
The pairing of down to earth, Northern, football-loving Nelson with the metropolitan, Radio 4 listening, cat-hugging Ruth prompts some lively dialogue and the atmospheric setting of the saltmarshes is both chilling and eerily beautiful.
Lynne McEwan is a debut crime novelist whose first DI Shona Oliver book 'In Dark Water' was published by Canelo in June 2021. Lynne serves on the committe at LAG and is an MA student at The Unversity of East Anglia's Creative Writing Programme. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @LynneJMcEwan.