Today’s title up for review is a work of fiction, The Hidden Bones by Nicola Ford (Allison and Busby, 2018, 350 pages). Nicola Ford is the pen name of Dr Nick Snashall, National Trust Archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. The Hidden Bones is Nicola’s debut novel, and reading through her short online biography it seems that she has been dabbling in the mysteries of death & the historical dead for a long time:
[aged 12] ‘The record shows that my first successful venture into crime writing was an illustrated history of crime and punishment going back to Saxon times. I still can’t be sure whether it was the trip on the skid pan, the ride on the police launch or the blood stains on the murder weapons in the police museum that left me with a fascination for all things criminal.’ (source)
So let’s take a closer look at the book, without giving too much away:
Crime, Mystery. Fiction.
At the heart of this book lies an archaeological mystery, in more ways then one. If a friend once wrote that ‘to practice archaeology is to learn how to be dead’, one can say that the characters of this book are trying to learn how to live- how to make their way both through personal histories, and those of the long dead. The central characters are:
- Clare Hills, a former archaeologist, but housewife as of the last 15 years, seeking refuge in a new archaeological project after her husband’s sudden death;
- Dr David Barbrook, a university researcher pressed by his boss to secure a big grant – a pressure with which I am sure the archaeologists audience will certainly relate to, and which could have surely been a murder mystery plot in itself, but alas it is not the case.
What brings them together is the discovery of what has been thought of as a lost archive (again, fully relatable) of a fictional 1970s excavation of Prehistoric Hungerbourne Barrows. This prompts a re-opening of the old trenches, and soon mystery threats start to appear, accidents that can jeopardize the fate of the new excavation, but which also question what really happened 70 years ago – why did an eminent archaeologist put an abrupt end to the excavation, and became secluded til the end of his life? The dead hold many secrets, and as the characters will soon discover, the fates of the Prehistoric dead are intertwined with the recent ones. Nicola writes about osteologists excavating cremation urns, archaeologists fighting to put up tents in muddy fields, about Gold sun disks, and objects in the archives, all giving a realistic feel to the murder mystery unfolding.
As previous reviews have rightly highlighted, Nicola Ford has a great talent for vividly describing the Wiltshire landscape, and characters at work. For this reason I can say that my favourite was the beginning of the book which takes full advantage of this talent. The action has a decent pace, though towards the end it feels like it looses a little of the spark.
Even so, the plot is original, and I think this novel shows the most successful use of archaeology/archaeologists in a crime fiction book that I have read. Archaeology offers a backdrop- a site, trowels, missing artefacts, but it also works well as a metaphor- a historical crime, whose layers need to be dug into.
[Characters] As a side note, being a non British reader, I can only say that I found Clare, the main female character, to be very ‘British’ (in lack of a better term), constantly apologising and feeling at fault for every offense that she received.
– e.g. a random woman, younger then her, just enters her office, dumps her bag, and spills some coffee on her desk, without introducing herself and just pretending that is her space, and it is Clare the one who feels ashamed that she even dared to ask this woman who she was. Of course this affects in no way the plot (although she does tend to make some naive decisions later on), but it was an interesting anthropological detail.
‘It was a single glint of sunlight piercing the hanging mists of the October morning that caught his attention. The incessant rain of recent weeks had stopped, but the sodden chalky soil clung to his boots, making every step along the freshly cut furrows more difficult that the last. […] He’d searched these fields a hundred times. Every new discovery collected and exchanged for the telling of a tale. But this one was different. This one was meant for him’ (p. 7-8)
Could be improved
Maybe would be nice to see in the future the same attention to descriptions which create the setup going all throughout the novel. This might help to give depth to characters, which is sometimes lost when it solely relies on dialogue. This of course does not take away from an entertaining novel, and interesting plot.
It would also be nice to see more of the Prehistoric dead present in her future novels, as the context of the plot seems to be perfect for that. But of course this is just a personal preference of an osteoarchaeologist.
Archaeologists, crime fiction enthusiasts.
It is a fun read, with an original plot, and featuring archaeology- so what more can one wish for?
If you liked this you might also want to have a look at:
For a list of archaeologically themed novels, see also David G. Anderson 2003, Archaeology in Science Fiction and Mysteries.