Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Egyptologist

Arthur Philips is a talented, and clever writer, but halfway through The Egyptologist I couldn't help feeling that something was missing from this novel. So far, the story had been told from three points of view: The archeological explorer Ralph Trilipush, his fiancee Margaret, and his emerging nemesis the detective Harold Ferrell. Trilipush's tale is presented as a series of journal entries, written for both history and Margaret, Margaret's as a set of increasingly desperate letters from her home in Boston to Ralph's dig site near the Valley of the Kings, and Ferrell's as recollections written down more than 30 years later for the benefit of Margaret's nephew.
The subject is a dig for the tomb of a little-known, possibly apocryphal Egyptian pharaoh, Atum-hadu, whose erotic poetry the explorer has translated and published in a scandalous volume that he hands out to virtually everyone he encounters, including the noted explorer Howard Carter, who is simultaneously searching nearby for the tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen.
Implied from the beginning is the possibility that several figures in the emerging story have been murdered, and that Trilipush is not the landed Oxford scholar that he presents himself to be.
So what's missing? The book is very well written, with the multiple points of view convincing, the characters amusingly self-absorbed and duplicitous. It's clever, but maybe not clever enough. The solution to the central mystery becomes obvious about halfway through, and, as one review succinctly put it, from there on the book has a "get on with it" quality. I raced through the second half to see how Phillips would tie the ends together.
There also are hints of additional intrigues never developed. Surely I am not the first to see that Ralph Trilipush's name is an anagram for the author's, and that the initial M plays a significant by unexplained role (it is Trlipush's middle name, it is the way his fiancee signs her letters, and added to the author's name is an anagram for a "reviewer" of Trilipush's work).