Tomb Raiders

"Go West, into the Far West. May you land in peace in western Thebes. In peace may you proceed to Abydos and across the Western Sea to the islands of Osiris and their green, eternal fields."
- A lamentation for the dead.
I'm afraid that this review may turn out to be a repetition of the previous notice, which conveyed a garbed discontent over the fact that a favorite of mine wasn't up to his A-game, but I will attempt to maintain an upbeat pace – even though Paul Doherty's The Assassins of Isis (2004) proved itself to be the first dud in the Chief Justice Amerotke series.

The Assassins of Isis was published after a dormancy of three years, which could be offered as a convenient excuse to explain the sheer drop of quality and utter failure to deliver on all, but one, of the many plot strands that were so firmly grasped in a tight grip in the preceding stories. The first of these threads leads Judge Amerotke into the Houses of a Million Years, in the Valley of the Nobles, where a band of mercenaries, known as the Sebaus, are raiding the tombs of their valuable artifacts and committing sacrilege to the mummified remains of Egypt's aristocratic forbearers – one of them that of a former, disgraced vizier, named Rahimere, whose sarcophagus contains a book that holds information worth more than any human life.

After this promising opening, the tome that was pried loose from Rashimere's custody drops out of sight and is not mentioned again until the end – where its disappointing content is divulged during a mostly predictable and anticlimactic dénouement. Meanwhile, the Sebaus are dispatching assassin's left and right to remove the Pharaoh Queen's most valuable chess piece, namely Judge Amerotke, from the playing field.

Admittedly, watching the judge dodging these mercenaries make for a few enlivening scenes, during which death is literarily just a heartbeat away, but not that exciting to draw your attention away from the clues – which are conspicuous by the absence.

The introduction of a second plot thread gave rise to some hope, but the seemingly impossible murder of General Suten, bitten to death by half a dozen horned vipers on his terrace roof, was perhaps the biggest let-down of the book. Doherty sketches a thought-provoking situation that encapsulated the ex-army hero's death and the apparent impossibility of introducing a bag full of agitated serpents on the terrace roof, but the explanation for this fairly original miracle problem was dull, unimaginative and enraging – especially when a simple, but satisfying, solution is staring you in the face.

Why not carefully suspend the bag above the bed with a looped twine, leading out of the window, and when it's pulled the bag opens, showering the general with venomous, rattled vipers poised to strike, after which the murderer could simply retrieve the tell-tale sack by giving the piece of twine another pull. It's perhaps a bit too simplistic, but still a lot better than the one that was presented here. The plot also throws a second locked room problem at the reader, when a captured mercenary is found stabbed to death in a locked and guarded prison cell at the House of Chains, but that solution was just as dissatisfying and enraging as the one put forward to explain the other murder.

But I will stop here to lecture an acclaimed mystery novelist on how to properly device and construct a locked room mystery.

Finally, there's a third, major plot thread spanned through the book and this particular strand turned out to be strongest, as well as the cleverest, from this entangled yarn – and ties together the dark doings at the Temple of Isis. Over the period of one month, four temple maidens have disappeared and their chief guard is brutally murdered. There are also tongues wagging in Amerotke's ear that the priests help the sick and dying, which stay in their House of Twilight, on their way to the Far West. This part of the story still lacks the proper clueing needed to anticipate even part of the solution, but at least it evinced some cleverness and what happened to the moribund after twilight was the best part of the book – and should've been more of a focal point in the story.

Overall, this was a depressingly bad detective story, which is a melancholia strengthened when you think of the four outstanding novels that preceded it – two of them excellent locked room mysteries. On top of that, it entombs, buries and hides its one really good idea better than the crypt of King Tut! The only thing you can really say in its favor, is how everything tied together in the end. That, at least, was done well.

Recommended to completists only.

For the next Paul Doherty novel, I will probably take an excursion to the dark Middle Ages. But first back to the Golden Age! 

All the books I have reviewed in this series:

The Assassins of Isis (2004)
The Poisoner of Ptah (2007)
The Spies of Sobeck (2008)

1 comment:

  1. Ah, well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. It's always such a shame when a book with potential doesn't utilise it effectively.