A Paleolithic tribe is trekking across the Alaskan tundra in search of a promised land of plenty. Raven, an elder of the band and its Spirit Man has been out scouting ahead, and when he returns to camp, he discovers that one of the tribe’s warriors has been murdered, and it is his job to find the killer. So begins J. M. Hayes’ unique pre-historic “who done it,” The Spirit and the Skull. Unsatisfied with merely setting the murder in the Paleolithic period, Hayes goes to some lengths to paint an imaginatively reasonable picture of the tribal culture and mores as well as a considered attack on what civilization has done to the tribe’s hoped for promised land.
While it is certainly possible to quibble with some of the details, Hayes description of tribal life and beliefs is quite believable. If, as the author points out in an afterword, the idea that these primitives had things like wine and penicillin may be pushing it a bit, if some of the tools described may seem too advanced for such primitives, their inclusion never seems jarring. Their attitudes towards things like purification rituals after death, polygamous relationships, menstrual cycles, and spiritualism, much of them borrowed from modern tribal societies, are all quite convincing constructs that help to make the idea that they understood the effectiveness of mold to heal infections not unreasonable. Hayes creates a world in which these things are possible.
Raven, the book’s hero, presents himself as a practical man who understands he really has no spirit powers, but also knows that as long as the rest of the tribe believe he has, his place in the band is secure. Down, the young girl just reaching womanhood, who the older Raven desires is a passionate vixen, wise beyond her years and brave as well. Readers who would be offended by the more or less graphic relations between an older man and a teen ager take warning.
Picturesque minor characters fill out the tale. Stone, the ostensible tribal chief, is tyrannically protective of his position and perks in the social hierarchy. Cleverly named warriors walk the pages — Hair On Fire, Takes Risks, Bear Man, Walks Like An Ox. They are matched by evocatively named women — Gentle Breeze, Blue Flower, Willow, Scowl. Primitive people, they are given names that describe their characters or point to some physical trait.
Interestingly, onto the basic mystery plot, Hayes adds a mystical dream sequence critiquing what modern man has done to the land. Raven dreams that he is a skull (the skull of the title). He is found in a cave by man he calls Ice Eyes. Ice Eyes, it seems, is some sort of archeologist, and he and Raven have a series of dialogues, in which it becomes clear that the world of Ice Eyes is our world, and that world, where nature has been completely despoiled, is a disaster.
In the end Hayes has given readers a rousing thriller combined with an ecological sermon. Oh, and one more thing — a mammoth hunt, with instructions on how to kill one of the beast in case one shows up in your back yard.
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