Mesozoic Murder by Christine Gentry (2003)

Gentry001Cover blurb

Ansel Phoenix makes her living drawing dinosaurs for magazines, books, and museum displays. One morning, digging with students out in the field, she unearths the body of colleague and ex-lover Nick Capos. Shocked and grieved over the murder, Ansel is also distraught on a professional level. As president of the Pangaea Society, an esteemed paleontology organization to which the murdered botanist also belonged, Ansel must fight to preserve the society’s reputation when unsavory facts about its scientists — dead and alive — are revealed.

Not trusting the Big Toe police who’ve an axe to grind with her father, Ansel decides to investigate what Capos had been doing during the last few months of his life and soon suspects he was working on a secret project worth killing for. Her list of possible suspects grows by the hour as someone starts stalking her across the Montana landscape. This master predator will stop at nothing to keep her from discovering… what? Why is Nick’s fossil collection missing and why had he developed a recent interest in Baltic amber?

Ansel must also deal with the cultural challenges of her own half-Anglo, half-Blackfoot heritage, her ranching family, and the changes threatening their rural community while using her intuitive fossil-sleuthing skills to solve more than one Mesozoic mystery.

My thoughts

Dinosaurs have been dead for 65 million years, but paleoartist Ansel Phoenix finds something that died much more recently when she takes a trio of college students on a fossil-hunting excursion in eastern Montana. The group stumbles upon the body of botanist Nick Capos, a member of the local paleontology society and a man Ansel once had a one-night stand with. The police quickly deduce Capos was poisoned and start an investigation. However, Ansel fears the dead scientist’s connection to her society could jeopardize funding for a museum it plans to build, so she begins looking into the matter herself. Her background in paleontology turns up clues the police missed, but the deeper she delves into the mystery, the closer she comes to becoming the killer’s next victim.

Mesozoic Murder is an enjoyable “cozy mystery” from Poisoned Pen Press, a small publisher specializing in crime fiction. The novel doesn’t do anything new with the genre outside the focus on paleontology, but works of fiction have never needed to be groundbreaking to be entertaining. The novel’s greatest strength is its protagonist, Ansel. The character isn’t particularly deep but she is quirky enough to be likable, and I think female readers in particular will connect with her. The other characters are somewhat cliché – there is a handsome detective who serves as a potential love interest, an obnoxious police chief, at least two snooty scientists, a Native American shaman with mysterious powers, and so on – but they have just enough personality not to come across as stale.

As I was reading Mesozoic Murder, I couldn’t help but compare it to The Dinosaur Hunter, another paleontology-themed mystery novel set in eastern Montana. Having spent five years in the state, I would argue The Dinosaur Hunter does a better job portraying the culture and landscape of that part of the country. The Montana of Mesozoic Murder came across as too urbanized with its big city police force and its characters’ ability to quickly travel from one town to next, never mind the vast distances between communities there. (Montana is very big and very empty.) That said, Mesozoic Murder is a better read. For one, the novel doesn’t try to force feed you its author’s politics, unlike The Dinosaur Hunter. Also, the mystery is center stage in Mesozoic Murder whereas the characters in The Dinosaur Hunter couldn’t care less about solving crimes.

Mesozoic Murder isn’t without its flaws, but it does enough right that most readers will walk away entertained. Give it a try if you enjoy mysteries.

Trivia

  • Mesozoic Murder is one of two paleontology-themed mysteries starring Ansel Phoenix. The other is Carnosaur Crimes.
  • The author, a Florida resident, obviously put a lot of research into Montana before writing the novel. However, she makes one glaring error: She describes the city of Billings as the state capital. The correct answer is Helena, in case it ever comes up on trivia night.

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