Book Review: Catacombs by Mary Anna Evans
By Doreen SheridanAugust 22, 2019
Mary Anna Evans’ newest book in the Faye Longchamp series follows the architect into tunnels under Oklahoma City. But when three children’s bodies are found, her sense of discovery turns to dread…
The twelfth installment of the Faye Longchamp mystery series starts out with a bang, literally. Our heroine is in Oklahoma City for a conference and is just meeting up with Cully Mantooth, her distant cousin by marriage who also happens to be a movie star, when an explosion shakes the lobby of the hotel they’re in. This being the town where an infamous bomber murdered or injured hundreds of innocents in the late 20th century, the first thought on everyone’s mind is “bomb.” In this case, unfortunately, they’re not wrong.
Once Faye and Cully are cleared by the paramedics, the FBI comes calling. It seems that the blast, apparently caused by a suicide bombing gone awry, has revealed a large underground chamber beneath the Gershwin Hotel. Assistant Special Agent In Charge Micah Ahua wants an archaeologist on hand to help verify the era in which the mural-covered chamber was painted. Given Faye’s previous experience assisting the FBI, she’s more than happy to provide her consultation services, especially when three small bodies are confirmed to lie within.
Are the bodies linked somehow to the Chinese community that was forced to live underground for decades in early 20th century Oklahoma City? Or could they be more recent, and related to the suicide bomber, who left no note or manifesto to explain his terrible deed? As Faye examines the paintings from crime-scene photographs, she’ll come closer and closer to the shocking truth:
On the trees, she saw fruit of every color, apples, pears, blush-bellied peaches. Between the trees grew rows of tall corn capped by golden tassels, separating rows of fat tomatoes, round cabbages and chartreuse broccoli. The benches pushed up against three of the walls were painted to disappear into the scene, but the door in the wall was painted to draw attention. Its metallic surface was enhanced with sparkly silver paint, and it was ringed with a garland of ivy with every leaf carefully painted to convey the texture of its ribs and veins. The ivy sprawled out onto the surrounding walls, tying all the scenes together with its vegetal ropes. Carmine red hand prints were scattered everywhere.
Religious imagery, too, was everywhere, sharing space with magical symbols like pentagrams. If asked to describe the scene, Faye would have called it an effervescent celebration of magic and fertility. Or maybe it celebrated the magic of fertility.
Mary Anna Evans’ lush descriptive prose brings not only art but also history alive. I’d never heard of the underground Chinese community despite my long-standing interest in Asian-American history so was absolutely enthralled, both by the story and by Ms. Evans’ skill in weaving actual fact into her fictional narrative.
I was also impressed by Ms. Evans’ commitment to exploring racism in modern America, from the obvious bigotry of the white supremacists protesting a conference celebrating indigenous art to the more subtle prejudices held across generational and cultural divides by people who’ve actually been harmed by racism. Nowhere was this last more apparent than when Special Agent Ahua discovers that Cully has been withholding information that could be relevant to the case:
“Look at me, Mantooth. I am black and I am Nigerian. Are you seriously suggesting that I would discriminate against you for being a minority? Or a double-minority? Or a quintuple minority? Don’t you understand that I know what it’s like?”
“I’m older than you. If you’ll pardon my French, I’ve seen some shit. I keep my personal business to myself. Always have. I don’t break any laws. If you or any other officer of the law asks me questions, I will answer them honestly, but I am not going to come to you and spill my guts. I’m just not. Why don’t we move on past what I didn’t tell you, because you didn’t ask me to tell you? Then we can get to the part where I answer the questions you do ask.[“]
The thrilling climactic scenes beneath the surface of Oklahoma City cap a mystery that is both intelligent and sensitively wrought. Ms Evans has a lot to say about how history continues to influence our present day, making Catacombs an absolute pleasure to read, particularly because I also felt like I was learning something new while enjoying what is, at heart, escapist fiction. This is a book not to be missed by any history buff who also loves a good mystery.