Written by Carolyn Hart –– Skulduggery is the first of several re-issues of classic mysteries by Carolyn Hart, released by the imprint Seventh Street Books, part of the publishing house Prometheus. This story takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 80s. We meet anthropologist Ellen Christie right before a stranger comes to her door asking for her help. He introduces himself as Jimmy Lee and insists he has something that he needs her to look at. She accompanies him to Chinatown and he leads her into a basement, supposedly to show her the item in question. Her initial trepidation is soon forgotten when she realises the item he has is quite probably the skull of Peking Man.
The Peking Man skull was one of several bones excavated between 1923 and 1927 near Beijing, and may be over 500,000 years old. These remains disappeared during WWII and various myths and stories exist as to what happened to them. Ellen knows they’d be worth a pretty penny, but that’s not what she’s concerned with. It’s not only the discovery of a very important piece of human history, but the discovery would undoubtedly benefit her career. Unfortunately, a couple of thugs have other ideas and when they burst in on Ellen and Jimmy, the latter disappears and luckily, because of the appearance of his brother Dan, the thugs soon disperse.
With Jimmy missing, Dan is frantic that something untoward has happened to him, and Ellen is keen to get her hands on that skull again, so she agrees to help Dan track him down. Dan’s experience as a lawyer and Ellen’s academic smarts make for a pretty good team, and she can’t help but notice how attractive Dan is in the process. Now, at first you may think that this will be a race to the finish to find an important artifact and find Jimmy, but soon you’ll realise that it really isn’t the point of this book. Yes, the thrill of the search and excitement of discovery is part of the fun, but the most interesting part of this story is the rich history of Chinatown, and of its people. Keep in mind this book takes place in the 80s, and as we’ve become a culturally richer, some things can become so seemingly commonplace we forget that there is a fascinating and sometimes tragic history to be discovered.
During their search, Dan and Ellen talk to many people who have dealt with Jimmy on a daily basis, since he works for a service that helps the people of Chinatown with things ranging from burials when a death occurs, to providing a place for street kids to go so they don’t get involved with gangs. Ellen comes to realise that Jimmy isn’t out for a payday and when you find out why he has the skull, it adds a completely new dimension to the story. Fairly light and fast paced, Skulduggery is a quick, entertaining mystery full of history, very likeable characters, even a bit of romance, and it’s a wonderful introduction to Carolyn Hart’s work. There’s even a new introduction by the author.
Seventh Street Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars