Charles Matthews's Reviews > The Egyptologist

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips
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's review
Dec 18, 2009

really liked it

To describe his frenetic creation Wile E. Coyote, the great cartoonist Chuck Jones liked to quote the philosopher George Santayana: ''A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.''

Ralph Trilipush, the title character of Arthur Phillips' novel ''The Egyptologist,'' is a bit like that. He doesn't get bonked with any anvils, but he has the Coyote's single-minded self-destructiveness, working himself deeper into a mess when the wiser course would be to cut and run.

''The Egyptologist'' is Phillips' second novel, and readers of the first, the clever and often wise ''Prague,'' are likely to be startled by his change of direction. His first novel, about a group of young North Americans in post-Cold War Eastern Europe, was acutely thoughtful about life and culture at the end of the 20th century. His second is a glittery, intricate entertainment, the work of a writer uncommonly skilled at creating intelligent puzzles. ''The Da Vinci Code'' and ''The Rule of Four'' have shown that there's a market eager for mysteries wrapped in ancient enigmas, so ''The Egyptologist,'' which is a better novel than either of those bestsellers, will probably get a lot more readers than ''Prague.''

You may already be wondering what sort of name ''Trilipush'' is, so let that be your first clue that Ralph, who purports to be an Oxford-educated archaeologist on the brink of an epochal discovery of the tomb of a previously unknown king of ancient Egypt, is not who he says he is. It won't take you many pages to figure out that he's some kind of fraud. What kind, and why and how he pulled it off, and what will happen when he's exposed -- this is what keeps you guessing and reading.

And the neat trick is that Phillips lets Trilipush (or whoever he is) tell much of the story. A large part of the narrative consists of the journal kept by Trilipush during his fateful dig in Egypt in 1922. The journal and other papers were packaged for delivery to his fiancee, Margaret Finneran, whose father, a nouveau riche Boston department store owner, bankrolled Trilipush's expedition. Trilipush explains in the journal that he is sending it to Margaret because he fears for his life and wants her to publish his account of his discovery. And he fingers as his potential murderer none other than Howard Carter, the real-life discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamen. (Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, appear as characters in the novel, and Phillips did a lot of research into Egyptology, but his fiction intersects with history only tangentially.)

But another side of the story is provided by the letters written in 1954 and 1955 by Harold Ferrell to Lawrence Macy III, Margaret's nephew, who after his aunt's death is trying to clear up some mysteries about her past. How Ferrell, an elderly Australian detective confined to a Sydney nursing home, once crossed paths with Trilipush is too complicated to explain here. Ferrell himself sums it up this way: ''It started as 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.''

But beware of relying on Ferrell's account of things. Most readers will guess Trilipush's true identity from what Ferrell tells us, but Ferrell keeps putting two and two together and getting five. He has delusions of grandeur to match Trilipush's: As he tells his story to Macy, the detective begins to imagine himself as Sherlock Holmes and Macy as his Watson. So what we have here is a tale told by a fool and a fraud.

I'm pretty sure Phillips is making some point about the ambiguous nature of truth, but for the reader the real fun is matching up what we know about Trilipush with what Ferrell thinks he knows about him. For even though Trilipush is a phony, he also believes he has made a great archaeological find -- which explains his antipathy to Carter, whose famous discovery is taking place in the next valley over. Trilipush goes into a frenzy, trying to convince his fiancee and his backers, not to mention himself, that he's onto something of importance. And the more unlikely this becomes, he only redoubles his efforts -- hilariously, but also lethally.

With Ferrell on the track of Trilipush, Phillips' novel turns into Coyote vs. Coyote. And you may wind up rooting for both of them for the same reason you root for the Coyote: You don't really want to see him get the Road Runner, but you can't help cheering him on in his violent futility. You don't want Trilipush to get away with the crimes he piles up, but you can't help admiring his perverse ingenuity -- or Ferrell's half-blind doggedness.

If you've gathered that ''The Egyptologist'' is a kind of brainy animated cartoon in novel form, you've got it. Some of its contrivances are a bit wobbly, and none of its characters is wholly human, but it often verges on brilliance -- though it's inconsequential brilliance.
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