A gala reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is interrupted by the news that one of the museum’s sarcophagi has turned up in a Newark freight yard with its mummified Middle Kingdom princess replaced by a much more recent corpse. Even before her boss, New York DA Paul Battaglia, has won his fight for jurisdiction over the remains of Katrina Grooten—a Cloisters intern who’d supposedly returned home to South Africa months ago—ADA Alexandra Cooper, head of Manhattan’s sex crimes unit, has swung into action. Together with an old friend, homicide dick Mike Chapman, she traces Katrina to the Met’s great sister, the Museum of Natural History, where, as at its rival and twin across Central Park, “most of what you see has been stolen from beneath someone’s nose.” The treasures locked away in both museums are so vast, and the Natural History Museum so honeycombed with unexplored corridors and storage rooms sealed years ago on the orders of demanding benefactors, that a lengthy investigation—interrupted by the highly experienced 14-year-old who cries rape and the S&M couple who insists that what he’s doing to her is safe, sane, and consensual, is guaranteed. But it will take the revelations of an elusive friend of Katrina’s to explain why the doomed girl traded her devotion to medieval art for an activist role in cultural anthropology—a career change that cost her life.
Despite the Cornwellesque title, the fearless plunge into the dirty waters of museum politics suggests that Fairstein (The Deadhouse, 2001, etc.) may have found her own voice at last.