This first novel from Australian science writer Flannery (Atmosphere of Hope, 2015, etc.) travels back in time to 1932-1933—and back in cultural mores a lot further—when intrigue swirls around an aboriginal mask enshrined in the Sydney Museum.
“Enshrined” may not be quite the right word. Anthropologist Archibald Meek, returning from five years embedded with the natives of Venus Island, is horrified to discover the gigantic mask, ringed with 32 human skulls, prominently displayed in the museum’s boardroom. To be fair, Dr. Vere Griffon, the museum’s director, is equally unhappy that Archie overstayed his Venus Island posting by two years and fears he may have gone native—a fear shared in her own way by virginal archaeology registrar Beatrice Goodenough, who, swept off her feet by Archie’s posted marriage proposal, was seriously jolted by the personal gift that followed it. While he’s trying to mend fences with Beatrice, Archie can’t help noticing that four of the skulls surrounding the fetish are a different color than the others and that the buck-toothed mouth of one of them reminds Archie very much of Cecil Polkinghorne, his mentor, the latest of four museum employees to have vanished without a trace. Could someone be removing the original skulls, memorials of an 1892 shipwreck, and replacing them with more recently harvested products? Archie has precious little energy to devote to serious detective work when he must spend his days negotiating a cast of colleagues, board members, and government overseers straight out of P.G. Wodehouse and renegotiating his relationship with his ladylove. But the truth is bound to out, one way or another.
The detection is nominal, and the mystery takes a back seat to the comic bedlam that reigns throughout. But readers who have never before encountered sentences like “He knew he must get his foreskin back” will cheer Archie’s debut and hope for more.