I’m still surprised that not only did I start this novel, but I could scarcely put it down until I’d finished it. With its unreliable narrators, epistolary format and absence of sympathetic characters, it seemed to be precisely the kind of too-clever-by-half literary novel that I can’t abide.
Ralph Trilipush is a British archaeologist obsessed with a little-known pharaoh whose erotic writings he has translated. He’s excavating in Egypt at the same time as Howard Carter, of whom he’s madly jealous. Trilipush’s background and credentials are obscure, his financial backing unreliable and possibly unsavoury. There are murders, conspiracy and shady dealings, sometimes comically inept; nothing and no one are what they appear to be. Suspicions are aroused and someone sends a private detective to put a tail on Trilipush, who has by now discovered the location of his shadowy pharaoh’s tomb near to (but just out of sight of) where Carter is about to unearth the treasure of Tutankhamun.
The story is told entirely in extracts from Trilipush’s journals, contemporary letters and telegrams, interspersed with much later correspondence that the now-aged detective sends to a young relation of the aforesaid fiancee. These elements are so skilfully spliced together and allow the characters to unwittingly reveal so much about themselves that this reader, at any rate, was immediately hooked and unable to let go until the shocking denouement. And not even then, if truth be told.
If had to say what The Egyptologist is about, I’d go for ambition, greed, self-delusion and the quest for immortality at any cost. It’s a black comedy laced with subtle jokes (some of which I suspect I may have missed on a first reading), and like the best comedy, it has tragedy and pathos at its heart.
Murder-mystery fans might be disappointed to guess whodunnit quite early on (it’s the how and why that are truly intriguing and unexpected), and Egyptophiles might regret that the novel doesn’t time-travel, but for me this was a hugely enjoyable and satisfying read.