Lyn Hamilton was a Canadian author who studied cultural and physical anthropology ("as well as English literature") at the University of Toronto and worked in communications for corporations, non-profit organizations and the Canadian government – notably helping to develop an award-winning awareness campaign on domestic violence in the 1980s. When she turned fifty, Hamilton wrote and published her debut novel, The Xibalba Murders (1997), which was the first in a series of eleven archaeological mysteries published over a ten year period. Regrettably, Hamilton was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer while working on her last novel (The Chinese Alchemist, 2007) and passed away in 2009.
Obviously, the archaeological and historically-themed plots is what first caught my attention, but one title in the series stood out to me for an entirely different reason. This time, it's not the possible presence of a locked room mystery or impossible crime. The novel under review today has a premise that immediately conjured up images of Japanese shin honkaku mysteries like Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987), Alice Arisugawa's Koto pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989) and about 99% of the stories from The Kindaichi Case Files series. I was not entirely off the mark with this conjecture.
The Moai Murders (2005) is the ninth title starring Hamilton's series-detective, Lara McClintoch, who's an antique dealer from Toronto and your typical, everyday murder-magnet – drawing out corpses and murderers wherever she goes. Such as on "a tiny island in the middle of nowhere" where the only crime normally is "excessive drinking."
The story begins with a visit from Lara McClintoch's close friend, Moira Meller, who recently recovered from a serious and painful surgery, which made her reevaluate her past and future. Moira drew up a list with things she still wanted to do and right at the top of her bucket list is hugging a Moai statue. So she invites Lara to accompany her on a long overdue, fun-only holiday to Rapa Nui. A tiny, remote island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean more famously known as Easter Island. Lare and Moira's fun-only excursion unluckily coincided with the First Annual Moai Congress at their hotel. A congress with a well-known, but somewhat controversial, keynote speaker, Jasper Robinson.
Jasper Robinson is an amateur archaeologist, self-styled adventurer and considered by some to be "a modern day Thor Heyerdahl" who discovered "a very ancient fortress in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile" and swam "across the Straits of Magellan." Robinson is going to present a paper at the congress proving that there were "two waves of settlement of the island" with the first one bringing "the great stonemasons" of South America to Rapa Nui, which is contrary to the academic consensus that Polynesians had settled the island. There is, however, nobody there to represent the academic community. Not officially. Dr. Gordon Fairweather is an archaeologist who lives on the island and clashed publicly with Robinson, but the rest of the congress attendees and speakers comprises almost entirely of "the lunatic fringe." Or, to be more precise, the members of an internet discussion group called the Moaimaniacs. Every group member has a nickname related to both Rapa Nui and their particular area of interest.
Dave Maddox, a builder and developer, is MoaiMan and is going to present his theory "as to how the moai got from the quarry to the ahu." Seth Connelly is a history teacher and "knows everything there is to know about rongorongo," a now lost language of the island, which is why he picked RongoReader as his nickname. Brian Murphy, or Birdman, is an archaeology graduate who supports himself as a computer programmer, but is there to find himself a job in his chosen field with a special interest in "the site of the bird man cult." Edwina Rasmussen is Vinapu, "because she supports Jasper's theories of settlement from South America." Albert Morris is a retired PR consultant and amateur archaeologist, volunteering at dig sites all over the world, who goes by the nickname Arikimo. Brenda Butters is the congress organizer and is known on the internet group as Avareipu. Enrique Gonzales, or Tongenrique, came to the island to learn more while Lewis Hood is interested in the archaeological survey of Poike, which is why he picked Poikeman as his online handle. Cassandra de Santiago is the most colorful character of the bunch and believes "Rapa Nui may be all that's left of the lost continent of Lemuria." This in additional to archaeologists, locals and a film crew shooting a documentary of Robinson's discovery.
However, the antagonism among the different schools of thought were not known to Lara and Moira when they decided to sign-up to attend the congress for laughs and giggles, but Lara discovers "the feelings went way beyond the professional" and charged with "a level of animosity" that surprised her – which gave her good reasons to be suspicious when a speaker died. Apparently trampled to death by a horse. Corporal Pablo Fuentes, of the Carabineros de Chile, believes it was an accident and Lara carefully poking around is not enough to prevent a second death. This second death could not be easily dismissed as a mere accident. This is also the point where the review is coming to a screeching halt.
The Moai Murders began very promising with an intriguing premise and a fascinating background, swimming in local color, historical skulduggery and light banter, but Hamilton waited until the final quarter with unloading a lot of relevant information. Some of which should have been divulged at an earlier point to either make the story more fair or less confusing. For example, there were several references early on in the story to the maniacs and their nicknames, but it's not explained the Moaimaniacs is an internet group until very late in the story. I've no idea why this wasn't mentioned when they were introduced, because it would have added some interest and substance to the characters as a group. Or what about the motive? There's not a hint of the real motive until its given away towards the end, but, since its completely useless to identify the murderer, the 1975 scene could have been easily shown in one of the historical flashbacks in the first half. Something that would have made the plot marginally more fair and better. Since she waited until the last possible moment, Hamilton's attempt to do something really clever with the murder methods fell completely flat. There simply was not enough room left to do anything meaningful with it.
So, on the surface, The Moai Murders has all the allure of a Japanese shin honkaku mystery and a tighter plot would have justified the comparison, but, underneath the surface, there's only an amusingly written, historically-themed and lightly-plotted travelogue tramping around the ancient statues of Rapa Nui. Steer clear, if you want at least a half decently plotted detective story.