Saturday, November 25, 2017


OLMEC OBITUARY by LJM Owen (Echo Publishing, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Yearning for her former life as an archaeologist, Australian librarian Dr Elizabeth Pimms is struggling with a job she doesn’t want and a family she both loves and resents.

A royal Olmec cemetery is discovered deep in the Mexican jungle, containing the earliest writing in all the Americas. Dr Pimms is elated to join the team investigating the ancient skeletons found on site. Triumph is short-lived, however, as Elizabeth's position is threatened by a volatile excavation director, contradictory evidence, and hostile colleagues. With everything working against her, will Dr Pimms find the cause of death for a 3,000-year-old athlete and those buried with her?

Having spent six months travelling through Latin America several years ago, visiting ruins famed and lesser-known and learning about ancient cultures like the Inca, Mayans, and Olmec, I was quite curious about this debut crime novel from an Australian author.

There are several things readers could enjoy about the first Dr Elizabeth Pimms tale, but this reader was left a little underwhelmed by the read overall. I'm a crime omnivore, enjoying everything from cosy to noir, humorous crime to the darkest serial killer tales. This book sits more at the cosy end of the genre, with little in the way of on-page violence or sex, a 'lighter' tone even though it was serious in parts, and a quirky investigator probing a rather bloodless crime at its heart, etc.

Dr Pimms is potentially an interesting character, though I felt at a distance to her most of the time, not fully engaged. I wouldn't go so far to say she's unlikable, more that she's just tricky to warm to. She jumps to a lot of conclusions, and overlooks her own flaws while focusing on those of others.

A former archaeologist, Dr Pimms is now reluctantly working as a librarian back in Australia, supporting her family after her father's death. Her vocational spirits are lifted by an opportunity to work as a volunteer on bones recovered from an Olmec cave. But something strange seems to be going on with the discovery - there are mysteries present and past when it comes to the bones.

There is plenty of background detail peppered throughout the book, though Owen seems like a novice chef who's a little clumsy and heavy-handed with their seasoning. It felt like the author tried to stuff many of her personal interests into the book, which rather than texturing the story, overwhelmed or took away from it at times. That said, the background and historic details are quite fascinating.

Lots of interesting topics are touched upon, and there were good pieces for a great cosy mystery here, but the story and writing was just a little lacking overall. Plenty of promise, and some great pieces for an ongoing series starring Dr Pimms. I think this one would be most appreciated by crime readers who are big fans of cosies, and maybe those who enjoy the likes of Kathy Reichs but are willing to give a novice author a bit of latitude as she finds her storytelling feet.

I'd give LJM Owen another go.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes for magazines and newspapers in several countries. He's interviewed almost 200 mystery writers and discussed crime writing onstage at festivals on three continents, and on national radio and top podcasts. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), the McIlvanney Prize (Scotland), and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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