The Egyptologist

Written by Arthur Phillips
Review by Bethany Skaggs

To quote one of the characters, this is a tale of “an odd-duck inheritance task, then it was a missing-person case with a dozen different clients, then a double murder, a prenuptial background investigation, then a debt-collection case, and suddenly quite a different double murder.” Sound interesting? You haven’t heard the half of it.

Set in 1922, the story is told through letters, telegrams, and journal entries. The novel’s chronically unreliable narrators raise as many questions as they attempt to answer, in addition to unwittingly providing darkly amusing humor at their own expense. Professor Ralph Trilipush is an Egyptologist obsessed with Atum-hadu, alleged last pharaoh of the chaotic Thirteenth Dynasty. Trilipush risks his career and his future father-in-law’s riches to search for the tomb of this legendary king, whose name translates as “Atum is Aroused.” Having based his professional reputation on translating and publishing a series of pornographic poems purportedly written by Atum-hadu, Trilipush leaves his fiancée behind and sets off for Egypt in search of his pharaoh’s tomb. In the meantime, an Australian detective in search of a wealthy businessman’s illegitimate child begins trotting the globe as his simple case turns into the pursuit of a murderer. Or two.

As the two storylines dovetail and the novel moves towards its unavoidable conclusion, the reader is introduced to communist librarians, adulterous circus performers, opium-eating socialites, Irish gangsters, and even the great Howard Carter himself. Though the correspondents in the novel aren’t clever (or sane) enough to put all the pieces together, the reader will have no trouble. The end of the novel may not come as a surprise, but in this case, getting there is more than half the fun. Tragicomedy, murder mystery, call it what you will—The Egyptologist is a terrific read.