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Shell Game
(A Professor Simon Shaw Mystery)
Shell Game by Sarah R. Shaber
by Sarah R. Shaber
North Carolina Native American and Archeological Mystery

Publisher: St. Martin's Minotaur (March 2007)
Sarah R.Shaber’s Shell Game is a cozy mystery with a North Carolina flavor. Familiar North Carolinian landmarks and names endear this mystery to anyone who has a soft spot for the Tar Heel state. Archeology takes the reader from the halls of academia and a small Raleigh college to local politics, the unusual Native American history in Robeson county, all the way to the wilderness of Nantahala National Forest. Sarah R. Shaber combines humor, history and funeral customs to give her readers a unique multi-layered mystery.

Professor Simon Shaw teaches undergrads at a small college in Raleigh, NC but he has gained celebrity status as a forensic historian and solving murder mysteries. When his best friend David Morgan is found dead, hunched over his computer, death and murder touches too close to home. To make matters worse, David appointed him executor of his estate. While the police focus on David's beneficiary and financial motives, Simon's instincts tell him that David's death is tied to the discovery of the Uwharrie Man, a 14,000 year old skeleton archeological find that might completely change the understanding of prehistory as well as Native American history. Only Simon seems to understand the stakes involved and the seething hotbed of jealousies and power struggles inside academia and local politics. Can Simon figure out who killed his friend and stay alive?

Sarah R. Shaber begins each chapter with a quote from famous people from Woody Allen to Voltaire, Winston Churchill, and others about death. Often the quotes are the last words of the cited person and usually quite humorous and/or irreverent in the face of such a somber occasion. These quotes complement and contrast with Simon's actions and emotions as a friend of the murder victim . At the same time, however, these quotes give this mystery just the right tone, adding both a seriousness and lighter relief as Sarah R. Shaber's mystery looks into some of the customs, rituals and even mundane duties surrounding death from the casserole brigades to choosing clothes for the deceased and the process of insurance policies. Despite the grave topic, Sarah R. Shaber touches just the right emotional balance between Simon's grief and inane humor. S in her previous mysteries, the use of quotes guides the tone of this mystery while adding depth to the plot.

Sarah R. Shaber's gives her fans a more personal look in to her intriguing sleuth, Simon Shaw as he struggles with his grief and to make sure he honors David's last wishes and his research. David served on a committee to decide the fate of the Uwharrie Man, whether he should be reburied according to Native American burial customs according to North Carolina and federal law or be turned over for archeological study. When certain items appear missing from David's home, Simon investigates the players, trying to determine which way David's tie-breaking vote would have gone and whether anyone on the committee had a motive for murder. As Simon begins to uncover clues, the danger mounts so that even his own life might be at stake. Shell Game creates a moving and sometimes humorous portrait of friendship. David's sister adds both a moving and practical side to effects of death of relatives as well as their actions and concerns. This portrait of current day death customs compliments the discussion of Native American burial customs and honoring the dead. At times, the contrast between the two can be humorous with just a touch of sadness that modern day burial rites often diverge from the person's culture and wishes.

Sarah Shaber does an excellent job at showing the interconnections and implications of academic research and the kinds of ramifications one theory might have outside of academics as politicians and Native American burial claims come into conflict. The addition of David's sister in the fray takes the death down to the family level. Shell Game differs slightly in tone than the kind of almost supernatural atmosphere of The Bug Funeral with its question of reincarnation. Those who loved The Bug Funeral, however, will find the same multi-layered approach to murder mysteries as Simon's person and profession converge to give the reader an intriguing glimpse into death customs. Academicians and others will love this author's ever so accurate and humorous portrayal of academia (at least some parts of it) with its contrast between Simon Shaw, a man dedicated to teaching, and some of the prima donna researchers who would never deign to actually teach. Whether you are a Tar Heel native, a relocated homesick North Carolinian, tourist or just a mystery lover, Sarah R. Shaber's Simon Shaw mysteries are a treat not to be missed!

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews

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