Bone Hunter, by Sarah Andrews. St. Martin's Press, 1999. 353 pp. 0-312-97317-9.
... in which a forensic geologist tracks down the murderer of a famous paleontologist.
This poor little battered up paperback has been following me around the United States since the summer of 2007, when I picked it up in a little bookshop in Jackson, Wyoming. It then traveled with me to Montana, Idaho, back to Wyoming, back to Idaho, Missouri, back to Idaho again, and then Ohio. Only now did I get around to reading it, and now I kind of see why I was putting it off, despite my natural affinity for geologists named Emily.
The premise is interesting... a geologist Emily Hansen has earned a reputation for using her geological knowledge to help detectives crack their murder cases. Bone Hunter is from somewhere in the middle of the Em Hansen mystery series, but I did not find that previous knowledge of the series was necessary. The story opens with Em arriving in Salt Lake City to attend a paleontology conference. She's staying with a famous paleontologist, the sort of guy you see in documentaries on National Geographic. Unfortunately for her, her host ends up dead in the Utah desert, and Em is the prime suspect. To clear her name, Em teams up with a local cop and starts digging into the murder victim's secrets and questioning his colleagues.
As far as murder mystery protagonists go, Em Hansen is pretty unique. She's not a cop or an FBI agent, and she doesn't have a special animal sidekick... all she has is a good understanding of stratigraphy and sedimentology. The rest of the characters, however, are pretty by-the-book.
The plot of the book was pretty bland... it might be because Em was a suspect in the murder case, but she seemed to do a lot of following the cop around and reacting to what she learned from him, as opposed to much active investigation of her own. She also doesn't get many opportunities to actually exercise her knowledge of geology, but that is probably also due to the fact that she's a suspect, not an independent consultant brought in to help on the case. So, most of the book revolves around her chatting with the paleontologists at the conference, and finding out that the murder victim was involved with some Fundamentalist Mormons who lived deep in the desert. The ending of the book is fairly action-packed, which makes up for the slower pace of the rest of the novel, but unfortunately the killer ends up being the most obvious person. Never a good thing in a mystery.
I feel like this book was on the edge of being something really good... but ended up falling a little short. From researching the series online, I gather that this book is actually something of a transition novel, since it introduces one character who becomes important later in the series. In the end, I'd be willing to read other books from the series, not because of the strength of Bone Hunter, but because of the hint of what kind of book it could have been.