Fatal Remains, the eleventh novel in Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti MacAlister series, is about the exploitation of runaway slaves and the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral land.
Homicide detective Marti MacAlister and her partner Matthew Jessenovik are called to a site where a vagrant has found the skeleton of a Native American on land near the estate of the prominent Smith family. They notice that Several holes have been dug on the estate and more are being dug.
The Smiths have hired Larissa Linski, a student archeologist, to search the holes and report what she finds. She finds four metal tags, gives three to an unnamed person, and keeps one. She is later found dead, apparently from an accidental cave-in. Expert evidence suggests her death was no accident.
Harry Buckner, the handyman who operated the backhoe to dig the holes, finds a Native American belt. He later falls to his death from the second floor of the barn. The detectives conclude that his death also was no accident.
Marti and Vik discover in one of the holes what appears to be a wine cellar but no wine bottles. The cave-in expert explains that the space wasn’t a wine cellar (to reveal what it was would spoil the surprise).
Dr. Gabi Kirkemo, an archaeologist, determines that the holes are not proper sites for archaeological digs. She finds the remains of Native Americans and concludes that the land is on a burial site.
The Smith land belonged to the Native Americans before the patriarch of the family, Idbash Smith, stole it from them. Based on Idbash’s journals, Josiah Smith, his grandson and the current patriarch of the family, learns how Idbash acquired the land and what happened to the slaves who were fleeing from slavery and stopped at Idbash’s place because it was supposed to be a way station on the Underground Railroad. Afraid the investigation might reveal the sordid history of how Idbash acquired the land and that Dr. Kirkemo’s findings will reveal it is a burial site, Josiah tries to use his nephew, a state senator, to quash the homicide investigation. When that fails, he tries to delay the investigation by refusing to answer questions.
The revelation that the land is a Native American burial site would complicate its sell to developers. In addition to Josiah, his daughter-in-law Eileen and Kat Malloy, his nephew’s mistress, also stand to profit from the sell of the land.
Isaiah Ben Mosheh, a Black man who converted to Judaism and changed his name to from Irwin, has been studying his family genealogy for 20 years. He needs to find an ancestor named Samuel to complete his family’s history. He is to old to travel to Chicago to search the records, so his grandson, Omari, gladly helps. Omari locates Samuel in the records and is standing on a corner in Chicago waiting for a bus to take him to Lincoln Prairie to meet with Josiah, whom he had called earlier to arrange a meeting, when he is stabbed.
In the unrelated subplot, Assistant State Attorney Anne Devney is reviewing the case of murderer Hector Gonzales, apparently to get him out of prison because he fears for his life. Two men attack Marti in the basement of the state building where she has gone to meet with Devney. She wins the struggle. Her injuries: cracked radius on the left wrist. The two muggers: “One broken nose, two black eyes, fractured ribs, broken toes, a fractured tibia, and swollen testicles.” The mugging appears to be a foreshadowing for Marti’s confrontation with Gonzales, who attacks her when she, Vik, and Devney meet with him in prison. The meeting is a setup, but we are not told by whom and why.
Despite the distracting subplot, which shows Marti’s toughness, Bland’s attempt to tell the history of the relationship among the three races in the US--Native Americans, African slaves, and Europeans--is admirable and makes Fatal Remains a novel worth reading.