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The Dig at Sutton Hoo

A long time ago, (far, far away), when I was young, I remember reading about a place in England with the strange name of Sutton Hoo. I can’t remember where I read about it, but I was fascinated by the story. Sutton Hoo, a riverside farm in Suffolk, was the site of the biggest archaeological dig in British history. On reading more about the place, I formed an idea in my head that one day I would see the famous hoard found in Sutton Hoo. In the long hot summer of 1939, as Britain was preparing for war, Mrs Petty the owner of Sutton Hoo decides to have the strange mounds on her farm  investigated. What follows is told in a beautifully written fictional recreation, simply called The Dig by John Preston. It is not a very long book, in fact quite short, but it certainly isn’t a quick read. It is such a lovely book, and such an interesting story that you really want to prolong the pleasure. It is full of wonderful, memorable characters, including C.W. Phillips from Cambridge, who reminded me of a  character from an Agatha Christie novel, Mrs Petty’s photographer nephew, Rory, and archaeologists, Stuart and  Peggy Piggot. My favourite character is Basil Brown, the self-effacing, self-taught archaeologist—renowned in the area for his remarkable archaeological skills.

Mrs Petty feels sure that there is something very special in at least one of her mounds and engages Basil and two local men to start a dig. The great story of three months of intense activity ensues. The findings are more than they could have hoped—much, much more. The Sutton Hoo dig was the most famous ever in the archaeological history of Britain—the largest mound producing the most treasure. I won’t go into detail, because if you don’t know about what they found, I don’t want to ruin the pleasure of discovery. During the three months, with locals fighting outsiders, and professionals against amateurs, there is no shortage of fun and games on the site, and there is also a slight tinge of romance, which sadly never comes to anything. I must just mention Robert, Mrs Petty’s son. Quite a character himself—and sometimes a very young worker on the dig—the widow, Perry, is very close to her son and keeps him close. I must also add that I did get to see the Sutton Hoo hoard, in the British Museum, many years after I was first introduced to it—and it was as wonderful as my younger self imagined it would be. Needless to say, I loved this book, partly because of its very Englishness, the location, the characters and of course the treasures. There is also discussion about the impact of the find on knowledge about what was called the Dark Ages—fascinating. 

The Long, Long Afternoon, a new crime novel by Inga Vesper, is  set in 1959 in Sunnylakes, Santa Monica, California—and it is a delight. Sunnylakes  is a town on which the sun never sets—the women of the town would not allow it, and they are a most formidable lot. The story begins with Joyce Haney, a young, seemingly happy wife and mother, kissing her blissfully unaware husband for the last time. Deciding to spend some time in the garden around the pool for the last time, she waters her favourite crimson geranium. Lily, her youngest daughter is in the house, and her other daughter, Barbara, is with a neighbour. When Lily wakes and starts crying Joyce hesitates and almost goes to comfort her, but decides in favour of a those last few moments to herself. And before the ‘long, long’ afternoon is over, Joyce Haney has disappeared.

Ruby the black cleaner, who works for most of the women in Joyce’s area is late arriving at her first employer, a very displeased Mrs Ingram. Her next stop is Joyce’s—and she is glad because Joyce couldn’t give a damn if she’s on time. However, when she arrives she’s surprised to see Joyce’s car in the drive, and Ruby begins to feel something is not right—so when Barbara appears suddenly appears from behind some bushes making not much sense, Ruby is very wary on entering the house. Upstairs in the nursery Lily is in her cot, her face streaming with tears, and Barbara trails in saying: ‘They are not here. They made a mess’. Unable to make sense of this Ruby decides to call a neighbour for help. Meanwhile, Barbara slips away and when Ruby finds her standing in the kitchen door her hands are covered in blood—and in the kitchen she finds blood everywhere—the sun streaming in through the curtains dapples blood soaked paper towels and blood soaked daisies on the kitchen tiles. Ruby holds Lily tight in her arms and screams as loudly as she can. The police arrive and arrest Ruby, a black woman. Enter Detective Mick Blake, new to Sunnylakes, re-allocated from New York for some unmentioned misdemeanor. He quickly gets involved with the search for Joyce Haney, digging into the past to unearth why she has gone missing. Unconvinced of Ruby’s guilt, Mick (unofficially) teams up with her, and together this most unlikely couple, set out to solve the mystery of Joyce’s disappearance—and what happened in the kitchen at 47 Rose View Drive Sunnylakes.