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Fiction Women Sleuths

The Ancient Dead

An Amanda Doucette Mystery

by (author) Barbara Fradkin

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jan 2021
Women Sleuths, Suspense, Amateur Sleuth
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jan 2021
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2021
    List Price

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Amanda Doucette searches desperately for the connection between bones discovered in a remote Alberta coulee and an uncle who went missing thirty years ago.

Photographer Todd Ellison is engrossed in a photo shoot deep in Alberta’s dinosaur country when he stumbles upon human bones buried in the sand of a remote coulee. Not far away, while driving through the Alberta prairie, Amanda Doucette glimpses an abandoned farmhouse that reminds her of an old photograph hanging on her aunt’s wall.

Who is the cocky young cowboy in the photo? Could it be connected to Amanda’s uncle, who went missing in Alberta thirty years ago? As Amanda starts to make connections between his disappearance and the body in the coulee, she discovers more questions than answers. To make matters worse, a mysterious person will stop at nothing to get her to abandon the investigation.

About the author

Barbara Fradkin was born in Montreal and attended McGill, the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa, where she obtained her PhD in psychology. Her work as a child psychologist has provided ample inspiration and insight for plotting murders, and she recently left full-time practice in order to be able to devote more time to writing. Barbara has an affinity for the dark side, and her compelling short stories haunt several anthologies and magazines, including Storyteller, Iced (Insomniac Press, 2001), and the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, including Fit to Die, Bone Dance and When Boomers Go Bad, published by RendezVous Press. Her detective series features the exasperating, infuriating Ottawa Inspector Michael Green, whose love of the hunt often interferes with family, friends and police protocol. The series includes Do or Die (2000), Once Upon a Time (2002), Mist Walker (2003), and Fifth Son (Fall 2004). Once Upon a Time was nominated for Best Novel at the Arthur Ellis Awards, Canada’s top crime writing awards, and her latest title, Fifth Son won this prestigious award in 2005. The fifth in the series, Honour Among Men, (2006), repeated the honour, the only time that consecutive novels by the same author have won the award. The sixth and seventh novels, Dream Chasers and This Thing of Darkness, followed in 2007 and 2009.

Barbara Fradkin's profile page

Excerpt: The Ancient Dead: An Amanda Doucette Mystery (by (author) Barbara Fradkin)

Chapter One

Beneath the dry, cracked soil, the tufts of sage and prairie wool, lay the graveyard of the ancient dead. Even after weeks of exploring the open range, Todd Ellison still shivered at the thought, as if ghosts were walking at his side. The sun blazed in the cloudless blue sky and a fitful wind billowed in from the west, swirling dust in its path. After a relentlessly dry summer, the land was parched.

The weather was still hot in late August, but Todd had packed a pullover and windbreaker in his backpack. This was Alberta, after all. Full of surprises.

He tilted his cowboy hat back and turned in place to take stock. The rolling grassland seemed to stretch on forever, broken only by a scattering of Hereford cattle, occasional clumps of trees and farms, and an oil derrick bobbing lazily against the distant horizon. His backpack stuck to his sweaty back as he pulled it around to get at his water bottle and binoculars. He needed shade and rest. According to his GPS, he was not far from a coulee, which carved a deep crevice through the ancient sandstone.

Coulees promised the shade of bushes and outcrops, but more importantly, they were where some of the best secrets lay. He trained his binoculars toward the eastern horizon, where a smudge of grey humps suggested the edge of the coulee. Nearer still was the slumping shape of an old outbuilding. Exactly what he’d been looking for! After a quick swig of water, he looped his camera around his neck and slipped his pack into place. With a fresh burst of energy, he started forward, picking his way through the sage and keeping an eye open for the vicious spikes of cactuses.

The wind blew in gusts against his back, tugging at the dry grass and driving fine sand into his eyes. His hiking boot struck something hard. He parted the grass to reveal a smooth stone partially buried in the soil. A quick search revealed other stones arranged in a circle about twelve feet across. Excited, he photographed them, taking care to capture the iridescent oranges and greens of the lichen and the sharp shadows of the sage. Once, the Blackfoot had roamed unhindered across this prairie, hunting buffalo, but now these occasional stone circles were all that remained of their camps and tepees. The stones would make a spectacular photograph for his book.

Closer to the outbuilding, a pair of craggy grey posts poked up out of the grass, and soon he could distinguish bits of rusty barbed wire still clinging to their sides, remnants of a long abandoned fence put up by a farmer or rancher in earlier times. Todd nudged his boot into the soil, which was too dry and sandy even for grazing here. Like the stone circles, the fence posts were testament to long-dead dreams. A title for his photographic history book was beginning to take shape: Ghosts of the Ancient Dead. Snapping photos, he walked around the posts and adjusted settings and filters as he knelt to highlight them against the sun. Subtle hues of lichen glistened in the light. He studied the effects on the screen and smiled. This was going to be good.

As he drew nearer, details of the outbuilding took shape. Barely fifteen feet square, it listed badly as if weary of its battle against the relentless wind. Its sun-bleached walls still propped one another up, but its roof had long since fallen inside. The door hung open, creaking in the wind, its wooden hinges and bolt splintered as if someone had tried to break it down. Holes gaped where the two small windows had been. Todd peered inside. All but a few primitive furnishings had been scavenged, but a willow sapling was flourishing in the relative cool of the shade.

After taking dozens of photos outside, Todd bent his head to squeeze his six-foot frame through the door and adjusted his camera to capture the gloom. He noted now the scorch pattern on the wall where the woodstove must have been, the nails in the walls where the few clothes and implements would have hung, and the single shelf on which sat some chipped cups and an empty whisky bottle caked in dust and oddly out of place. A message had been carved into the wall next to the window. He leaned in to photograph it. It was barely legible, and he blew the sand out of the cracks. A horizontal line, and next to it Snow, March 1907.

More ghosts. Todd smiled as he photographed it, documenting history. In March 1907, some poor beleaguered pioneer must have been nearly buried in a spring blizzard that had blown in from the Rockies. He had probably been forced to crawl out through the window. Todd wondered whether he’d been alone or whether he’d had to rescue his entire family from the storm. A trip to the local archives or land registry should tell him the identity and fate of the settler who’d once tried to survive on this land. He retreated back outside to look for more clues about their early life. There was almost nothing left except a nail keg and a broken sleigh runner. He dictated his impressions into his phone. First impressions and a dose of imagination made for powerful reading.

Afterward, he checked his watch, mindful that he had to retrace his steps to the range road before nightfall. In August, the days were already getting shorter and the nights cooler. But it was just past two o’clock, still plenty of time to reach the coulee. The best pictures would be there, amid the old cottonwoods, the ripples of eroded, multilayered rock, and the curving shadows of light. With any luck, maybe even a dinosaur bone or two.

He came upon the coulee quite unexpectedly as the prairie floor fell into a yawning crevice of barren hills and steep slopes down to the ancient riverbed. In the spring, snow melt would tumble down through the gully into the Red Deer River farther east, washing silt and debris with it, but in late August, the riverbed was dry. Willows and gnarled cottonwood trees clustered along the shoreline to sap the last drops of water from the parched soil. The v-shaped valley snaked ahead into the distance, forming an eerie moonscape of colours and shapes.

The wind picked up as it swept through the gully, racing over the barren hills and tearing at the bushes nestled in the crevices. Tufts of sagebrush and prairie grass clung to the desolate southern slopes, but hardy green and gold bushes grew in the lee of the north-facing hills. Todd picked his descent carefully down a crevice through sandstone and popcorn rock that crumbled underfoot, dislodging cascades of debris. Amid the debris, rocks and pebbles glinted in the sunlight. He bent to pick them up, looking for bits of ancient shellfish, seeds, and bones, imprints of leaves and flowers, the ancient dead from a time millions of years ago when this had been a swampy, inland sea teeming with life.

Editorial Reviews

? Fradkin, a retired psychologist, creates well-drawn, complex characters, and she knows how to build tension and drama that hold readers to the end.

Publishers Weekly, starred review for Fire in the Stars

Fradkin's forte is the emotional cost of crime.

Ottawa Citizen

The eloquently described landscape is a visceral part of the plot. Fans of regional mysteries will find much to like.

Publishers Weekly

Fradkin combines a white-knuckle mystery with a look at the serious social problem of foreign worker exploitation.

Publishers Weekly, for Prisoners of Hope

An informed and satisfying read that marks yet another milestone in Amanda Doucette's compelling cross-country odyssey.

Ottawa Review of Books

This crime novel is a good fit for both mystery readers and anyone trying to navigate the tricky questions of love and relationships in our highly mobile modern society.


The author, a retired psychologist, does a fine job of building her characters; unlike some amateur-sleuth mysteries, whose protagonists seem either too clever or too cute by half, Fradkin populates her series with real people whose lives encompass more than solving the odd crime. Keep ’em coming.

Booklist, for Prisoners of Hope

? A high-adrenaline plunge

Publishers Weekly, starred review for The Trickster's Lullaby

Readers of Tana French and Deborah Crombie may want to investigate.

Library Journal, for Fire in the Stars

Barbara Fradkin knows how to write a strong, compelling mystery, and her settings create vivid mental pictures as you read.


Other titles by Barbara Fradkin