Zelda Richardson is finishing her museum studies as an intern at Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum where she is helping to enter data on crates of bones and, at the same time, put together an exhibit of Asmat artifacts. Trouble begins when an odd set of bones is found, bones that cannot possibly belong to the native people of South Asia. When the crates of exhibits are opened and a journal is discovered, Zelda puts the two together as part of the mysterious disappearance of Nick Mayfield, scion of a wealthy American family.
Robbery, cybercrime, and murder all follow. Zelda finds herself in the middle of two mysteries, one present-day and one from more than fifty years ago.
Theme of the Book
Rituals of the Dead is much more than a typical murder mystery. Questions of culture, of appropriation of artifacts, of greed and of ambition fill the novel. This is a book that both entertains and forces the reader to question attitudes towards indigenous people and their cultures.
What I Liked About the Story
One of the best things about Rituals of the Dead is that it is loosely based on a true story, the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, while Michael was on an anthropological research project among the Asmat people of Papua New Guinea. Like Nick in the book, Michael Rockefeller was the son of a very wealthy family who wanted to escape his family’s business. Also like Nick, Michael disappeared without a trace though it is now believed he was killed by the Asmat in retaliation for an attack by the Dutch on an Asmat village. Both Michael and Nick were collecting artifacts, particularly bis poles, on their travels.
The story is full of conflict. There is the personal conflict between Nick and Albert Schenk, the anthropologist who accompanies Nick as his translator. Both want to collect Asmat artifacts but their purposes put them at odds. The question of whether or not Schenk killed Nick arises early in the novel but is not resolved until the end.
Schenk, now director of the Wereldmuseum, is also in conflict with his colleagues at the Tropenmuseum over whether to include new discoveries about Nick in the exhibit of bis poles. The reader will quickly learn that Schenk is hiding a dark secret but will have to wait to find out what that secret is.
Ms. Alderson does not shy away from larger issues, either. She subtly poses questions about colonial policy-making, about the role of religious missionaries in preserving or eliminating local cultures, and about the debate over whether to return artifacts to their place of origin or to keep them on exhibit in museums. While this may seem like an esoteric question, readers should remember that there is still conflict between Greece and Great Britain over the possession of the Elgin Marbles.
The most complex characters in the book are Schenk and Father Kees Terpstra, the missionary. While readers may disapprove of their actions, the explanations they give at the end do engender sympathy.
What I Didn’t Like About the Story
Although the title says that this book is a mystery, there is very little mystery to it. The murders seem to have been mentioned in passing with very little time spent on solving the crimes. In fact, the main mystery has nearly nothing to do with the murders. The poor victims are almost unidentified. We know their names and a tiny bit about each one, but it seems they were put into the plot only as filler and that the author would have been much happier dealing with questions of colonialism and culture.
Readers of the author’s previous books may have a better understanding of Zelda’s character. The current book gives very little background, aside from the fact that Zelda once worked for Microsoft and that she hasn’t had a successful relationship in some time. Her actions and reactions make her seem very young – much younger than she would actually be considering her background. She seems to have little confidence in herself or in her abilities and strikes me as an early 20-something graduate student: a bit lost and confused. I simply could not like Zelda or even care much about her.
There are some minor editing issues but these do not hinder a reader’s enjoyment.
While not a typical whodunit mystery, Rituals of the Dead is definitely worth reading. Although the main character, Zelda, is not particularly interesting, the plot that interweaves the present and the past, the factual basis and the complex characters of the “villains” show this to be a well-written and well thought out novel that should appeal to readers of mystery and to readers interested in the psychological basis for characters’ actions.