Review – Insinuendo: Murder in the Museum

Lou Allin, published on
January 7, 2013

The Protocols of Murder – 5 out of 5 stars

Intern Berenice (Berry) Cates brings hot flashes to her exciting new job in the Conservation Department of the prestigious Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. She needs a trial year to qualify in her field, and this may be her last chance. Will she make it or crash and burn like she did in Seattle? The first step is navigating the mind-boggling rules, protocols, and sequences necessary to protecting and enhancing priceless artifacts. The museum is a fortress, but it’s in danger from within if shortcuts are taken.

Berry’s late-blooming career brings her self-doubts along with new pride and esteem:
Me, at night when I took my glasses off, I could see myself in the mirror as I wanted to be and once was. With eyes blurred, my skin became smooth, my smile relaxed.

Recently divorced, and assessing her choices as a childless woman in pursuit of a new and challenging career, Barry has found a talented and handsome French-Canadian CBC reporter in Vancouver. Problem is, le beau Daniel is moving to Quebec just as she’s clarifying her feelings about him and needs his support in this crisis. His bonhomme personality contrasts with her worry and seriousness. Or is it just an act? : “I don’t lie about myself, I tell the truth but I make it funny.” Will their three months become a footnote or the basis for the future?

A hybrid academia with the professor class vs. the sans culottes, the team is filled with egotistical eccentrics with hidden agendas. Berry’s immediate boss, the slender but steel-backboned Reiko, sets one good example through her absolute honesty and intolerance for carelessness. Cuyler Foley, a visiting lecturer and Classical specialist, is Berry’s first serious responsibility. She must assist him in the demonstrations, subjecting precious ceramics to microscopic views sent to a large screen.

More chaos arises not long after when a First Nations woman needs to “borrow back” a piece of weaving for a special ceremony. Berry is learning the importance and fine lines of successful public relations. Native arts and crafts give the MOA its fine international reputation.

But Foley never leaves the building. He’s found dead under mysterious circumstances, collapsed onto a work table. Delicate ceramics have been crushed. Two early bronze sculptures have been damaged. In gruesome necessity, whatever fragments aren’t compromised by his blood or tissue must be restored immediately under the eye of a police guard. Sally Luykes, the tough-minded Director, gives Berry this “toughest job of all.”

As Berry labours, tantalizing pieces of information reach her inquisitive ears. Did the blustery Foley suffer a heart attack? What about the Roman stick pin squeezed between his ribs? Did he bring it with him, or…. As the police cover all angles, they find that common museum poisons used in cleaning processes have been carelessly stored, in particular, arsenic. Then there are the curare-tipped arrows in a nearby display. The museum is a minefield of possibilities, buzzing with suspicion and “insinuendos.”

Few people have anything good to say about Foley. He was a schemer and a “wheeler-dealer,” playing the art market against public collections and leaving the owner or creator with a pittance. Suspects swirl around Berry as the police continue their relentless questioning. When she discovers something hinky with one of the models Foley used, the stakes triple. The truth could rock any museum to its foundations.

Normally in academia, the fights are vicious because the stakes are small. Yet the art business is a million-dollar industry, and some dealers will stop at nothing. Whether it’s a painting with a false attribution or a jug given a false patina of age, the opportunities for immense profits arise, and sometimes even the pros are fooled.

Since Clavir works in the same place and job as Berry, her story line is filled with fascinating details about the back rooms and secret places visitors never see. The museum is a living entity, encompassing millennia of human history. An anecdote lies around every corner, including the potter who left a fingerprint on his work two thousand years ago. Clavir folds the formal discipline into the plot in perfect proportions. Experts and laypersons will be equally pleased.

The stage is set for Berry to move to other museums or even to fieldwork for fresh sources of storyline. She’s spunky and brave, knowledgeable and witty, an ideal guide to an untapped destination in the mystery field.

Lou Allin, author of the Belle Palmer and Holly Martin mystery series,