Manhein’s Floating Souls a solid mystery
By Greg Langley
September 19, 2012
By Mary H. Manhein
Margaret Media Inc., $14; 164 pp.
Someone is killing women in New Orleans, prostitutes. The first two are found “burned to a crisp in a French Quarter hotel bathtub.”
“Most of their soft tissue was gone and their mouths seemed caught in the middle of a scream, their dental fillings reflecting brightly when police officers swept their flashlights back and forth across the darkened room.” Even though there’s evidence of foul play, the police need help processing the bodies. The don’t even know who the victims are and there’s not much left to identify. Soon more bodies begin to float up in the city’s canals. The police need help. They call Maggie Andrepont.
Maggie is Manhein’s fictional forensic anthropologist and bioarchaeologist. She is happy digging up bones buried centuries ago or those bones still inside a recently burned body. She gives the police information about the victims’ age, appearance, dental work and maybe even fingerprints. She can assist the medical examiner in determining cause of death.
Maggie is frequently at crime scenes to supervise the collection of “evidence,” but most of her work is done in a lab. “Next stop for the bodies would be the forensic anthropology laboratory at the parish morgue, Maggie’s lab.” First the bodies are X-rayed, autopsied and then Maggie removes the flesh from the bones — if there is any — and analyses the bones. That’s when she gets the most detailed information. Manhein, a forensic anthropologist who runs the FACES lab at LSU, spares no detail about the process. “Once again, she vowed to cut her unruly curls to within an inch of scalp. The idea seemed more reasonable with each new forensic case. Cutting it would reduce her body’s absorption area for the lingering hint of death only Maggie could detect. Sometimes the smell of putrefaction could be purged with a three-mile walk, a luxury she had not allowed herself in three weeks.” She’s too busy to walk away from death.
Still, as much as she is engaged with death, Maggie has a firm grip on life too. She lives in an enviable warehouse/apartment combination in New Orleans’ downtown warehouse district. She shares her home with her burglar deterring dog, Brutus, and her independent cat, Tango. Her gardener is more than a gardener, he is a friend and protector.
No humans live with Maggie, but she is a complex character with a past. Maggie has a romantic history with the Orleans Parish coroner, Dan Farrington. And Maggie has other relationships in her past. Manhein reveals all that in due time. First, there’s a crime to solve and a killer to catch, and a call from an old flame in Italy with an archaeology job. All those loose ends come together smoothly and naturally in Manhein’s surehanded plot. Like all good detective stories, the killer is revealed at the end, but you won’t guess who it is.
Manhein has not tried her hand at fiction before, but she’s written nonfiction works including the popular The Bone Lady. That’s hard to believe, reading this book. Floating Souls will draw inevitable comparisons to Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books, but Maggie Andrepont is a more likeable character than Kay Scarpetta, and she is from Louisiana. Maggie has no hi-tech lab equipment at her disposal like the characters on the CSI shows on TV. There’s no instantaneous DNA matches or online fingerprint database or wall-sized computers. Maggie’s best tool in solving forensic puzzles is her own brain. She uses it and her heart too. That adds up to a fully realized character who will win over readers and entertain them. You’ll root for Maggie, and before you know it you’ll be at the end of the book. That “just ate the last piece of cake” feeling is waiting there. Don’t despair. Manhein is bringing Maggie back in future books. She’ll be welcome, even if she has a whiff of death in her hair.