2005 Book Reviews
The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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Phillips speaks with many voices in his new novel, The
Egyptologist. The initial narrator is the protagonist, Ralph Trilipush, who heads from
Here’s an excerpt of pp. 116-125:
Sunset on the Bayview Nursing Home
December 24, 1954
Still here, Macy, still here. Though I must’ve left you wondering. Another week on my back. Christmas upon us. Cheery season, I’m told.
I wonder, Macy, if you’re a religious mall. I’m not in the slightest, not I, it’s patent foolishness. But there’s an old woman here, quite out of her mind, like most of them, hasn’t spoken in ages, just stares at the telly, but she said to me this morning—first time she’s said word one to me—she said people are judged in the next world by all the animals who’d seen them in this one. Not just the cows you ate up or the fish you caught, she isn’t a “vegetarian,” I don’t think, just the nice animals that watch you as you go about your business, if you see what I mean. The cats that watched you when you were otherwise alone. The dogs lying in the heat across the street from you. Birds outside your window. Goldfish in a bowl. They all report on what they’ve seen you do, she says, they all parliament themselves and then they decide if you fly or if you fry. What do you think of that idea? I think about all those sad-eyed animals I’ve been alone with, figure they’re napping, not understanding anything even when they’re awake. Very strange notion, very unsettling. Can’t be true, but you ever heard anyone say it before?
Your aunt Margaret, don’t suppose you’d know this, back in ‘22, she used to have these little dogs, although maybe you’ve seen pictures. Tibetan spaniels, I remember her saying to me when I turned up at your great-uncle’s door, October the 13th, 1922. Your aunt opened the door, and these little dogs were yapping at me when I walked in. First thing she says, before I could say a word, she says, “Tibetan spaniels, very pricey, exceedingly rrrrrrare.” When she said rare, she sort of growled and curled her lip at me. Hello, here’s a live one, I thought. She was something to look at, your aunt, and obviously an electric sort of modem girl. I wonder if she mentioned me to you at all, if there’s anything you might tell me, not hat she would’ve said anything, I don’t fool myself I had that much effect on her, and not that she wasn’t above stretching the truth now and again for a story, if there’s anything hard to credit in those papers of hers.
Your great-uncle was a no-nonsense kind of man, an admirable man. Tough as a croc, big fellow, hair slicked right back, offered me a very fine cigar. In his great big study, he sat at a large, shiny desk and showed me an advertisement he was examining, turned the board towards me. “For the holiday season,” he said. “Trying to decide if I approve or not.” A drawing of a woman serving an enormous roast bird of some sort on a huge platter, and the words “Don’t serve fine fowl on foul finery! Trust Finneran’s Finer Finery for all your holiday needs! (Our goods last an eternity, guaranteed!)” The woman in the drawing was your aunt, you see, she’d modelled for it. “It took such a long time.” She sighed. “At least I didn’t have to hold the turkey, the artist drew that later. He was a bit of a sissy, I think.”
“That’s enough language:’
muttered Finneran. “We have company. What can we do
for you today, Mr. Harold Ferrell of Tailor Enquiries Worldwide all the way
I told him I was working on the inheritance of an Australian fellow and that I thought his business partner Professor Trilipush might be able to help me find this missing heir, as the two of them might’ve known each other in the War. “Ralphie?” your aunt breaks in. “He’s a bit more than a business partner, Harry!” I liked how she named me Harry straightaway and never let it go.
“This gentleman has
business with me, Maggie, so scram.” She raised her eyebrows, made a
sarcastic curtsey, collected her dogs, and slammed the door behind her. I
understood all about your aunt already, I thought: spoilt, charming when she
wants to be, bit of a would-be snob, but she’s young and doesn’t have anyone
to show her how it’s done. The money smelled new, no offence, Macy. No butler
to answer the door, still a household with real people in it. Understand: I
prefer that. I liked the way Finneran spoke, and! liked his home right off. He was a wealthy man (I
thought), but still understood what drove real men, understood the limits of
his money. I hope I’m describing you as well there in your
says her father after the door’s echo dies away. “But what she meant was, she’s engaged to Professor Trilipush.”
That was intriguing news to me, Macy. “He’s a fine fellow,” continues Finneran with a certain tone. “Do you know him? No, well,
he’s a hell of a fine fellow. Old English family, brave as hell soldier,
expert in his field. Quite a thing. You don’t see many men like him, even in
I started slow, just
explained the Davies inheritance case, and asked if Mr. Finneran
could tell me where I could find Professor Trilipush.
“Of course, of course,” and as he’s taking his address book out of his desk
drawer, I asked, “Just out of curiosity, how’d you come to meet Professor Trilipush here in
“I was glad of the opportunity, financially. Just the sort of thing our club likes, a winner, not without risk, but we’re protected, built-in protections. Thanks to my little girl, we got the chance to invest ahead of museums and banks and such. Any of them would have jumped at a chance like this, that’s sure, but we got first dibs. And, of course, I could see Maggie falling in love, whether she understood enough to put a name to it, and who am I to argue with love? When you have a little girl and a fellow like this comes along, you’ll understand, Mr. Ferrell.” The wedding would take place as soon as possible after Trilipush’s return from his dig.
Did Finneran think an Egyptian excavation was a safe investment? No, ha-ha, of course not, not usually, but there were unique circumstances here, advantages:
“Trilipush found something during the War, with a friend of his, and it points right to a very likely tomb. The details of it are complex. I can’t say I understand all the scholarly stuff. It’s not like a treasure map, precisely, of course, you have to know how to read the historical evidence, what have you, I don’t claim to be a scholar, but Trilipush explained it all and he more than convinced the group that, as far as these things go, while there are never guarantees, everything points to a fast and lucrative find.”
Now all of this new
information placed me in a bit of a predicament, you’ll notice if you stop
thinking like his great-nephew for a minute and start thinking like my
assistant again, Macy. See, I knew enough to stop that wedding right then and
there: lies about
Finally, between you and
me as men, Macy, I didn’t want to cause any pain, and that’s the truth. It
was clear that I was going to have to head off to
Do I wish your family’s story ended there, Macy? Part of me does, that’s the truth. But it’s hard. If I hadn’t taken him on as a client, if I’d just walked out the door, read the prospectus at my hotel, had a bellboy return it for me, set off for New York the next day and Egypt five days later, what would’ve ended different? It’s a hard score to tally up for certain, no matter what everyone’s recollections say, and I’d sure like to read anything else you might’ve found after your aunt’s death, any letters or journals that’d help me understand what else you know about all this. But one thing is certain: if your aunt had married Ralph Trilipush, a lot of lives were going to be built on lies in that household, and that’s worse than anything. My actions prevented that. I’m proud of that. The fellow lucky enough to marry your aunt Margaret certainly owes me some gratitude. And I’m sure, after a while, she recalled my services fondly as well. I saved her, at a steep cost to myself.
As it was, I was walking down the main hail, picking up my coat, when Margaret interrupts us at the door, those little dogs weaving in between our ankles, and she says she wants to offer me a lemonade, it’s rude of Daddy to shove me out the door without one, so she’ll entertain me now and see me out after that. Her father laughs, indulges her as easy as breathing, shakes my hand, and retreats to his study, but leaves the door open.
Now, your aunt had three
moods, if I may be honest. I grew to know her pretty well over the nearly two
months I stayed in
Three moods: afternoons, like the day I met her, she was a sharp one. She could make you laugh, she could charm you, she could treat you like you were someone fascinating, and of course, she was a rich young woman (or so it appeared, I didn’t yet see the plastered-over cracks in her father’s world), and the attentions of rich young women do feel nice; I know enough of human psychology to know that’s a pretty unbreakable law. That afternoon, she sat in front of the fire with her little dogs, the three of them all curled up together on a sort of long sofa across from me, and she says, “Now let’s have a lemonade, and you can tell me all about Australia, where everyone eats kangaroos, right?” And she gave me such a little look, well, no one could’ve resisted that invitation. And while you wouldn’t’ve taken her pretended ignorance seriously, you would’ve taken her very seriously as a woman, even though she was probably only twenty or a bit more. How much could she’ve known of the world at twenty? Nothing, you’d think. But then how’d she have such charm? The rich, the rich, the rich, even the new ones. They have their ways. Of course, I’m singing to the choir, aren’t I, Macy?
She questioned me with a
sly look in her eye, that afternoon, about my business in the
I asked her how she met Trilipush, how they came to be engaged, and did she mind ff1 took notes.
“Oh, wonderful! Really, I
wish everyone took notes when I spoke! Well, you don’t know Ralph? Oh, he’s
just everything, you know. The fellows I meet around
The fascinating thing about this little speech, Macy, was that while I didn’t doubt she thought it was true, she said it with such a tone, this little smile on her lips, as if to say that none of it meant a thing to her, not as long as I was there with her—not that I was so impressive, just that a part of her (afternoon) charm was that she’d never make you think her own fiancé mattered to her more than you, whoever you were, sitting with her just then. Maybe it was only for me, of course, and I’m sure I liked the idea that it was, at the time. She dazzled a bit, your auntie.
I repeated my question:
how’d she meet this hero of our time? In her version, she had them engaged
before the question of her father’s money ever arose, before the investment
meeting, but she did know that Trilipush would
please her father, and her father strongly supported the engagement, even if
she had some doubts at the beginning. She had doubts? “Well, sure, I mean he
is from a whole other world, maybe a little
Who was the poor, dead
friend from the War? “Oh, yes, another archaeologist, his best friend from
Indeed I could, but
Margaret was simply not a naïve young girl, and so I actually had a bit of
trouble imagining the effect they had on her. Did she know she was repeating
something absolutely ludicrous? Did it not occur to her that the story was
filled with lies and impossibilities and probably hid two corpses in its
forged folds? People conveniently missing in
But, for the record,
here’s what I was thinking, and pretty canny, if you ask me: if indeed there
was a hidden fortune in a hole that Marlowe and Trilipush
had found, it was looking more and more that Trilipush—impoverished
landed gentry with forged academic records—had killed Marlowe for it and then
escaped to America while the heat died down. There he made enough of a showy
reputation for himself among the local gullibles to
manipulate some money to go back and dig up his treasure. And now, 1922, he
plainly would never be coming back to
The victim of this tragedy, Macy—and
this was clear as crystal to me before I’d even finished my first
lemonade—was your lovely and hypnotising aunt. A
sweet, innocent girl, her head turned by a murderous pervert, used for her
family’s money. I wanted to help, and that’s the God’s honest, T saw clearly
that she’d been made a fool by a sodomite and was already abandoned, though
she didn’t know it yet. If I told her, she’d hate me forever. If I waited for
events to unfold at their own pace, she’d be the
Your aunt Margaret’s second mood, I
learnt over the coming weeks, was an early evening specialty. Some days later,
I was returning to the hotel, having spoken to more Harvard professors and
some students of Trilipush’s, and I found, to my
great surprise and pleasure, Margaret in the lobby. She hadn’t been far from
my thoughts since I’d met her. It was about seven in the evening, and she was
unaccompanied. “Now tonight you’re going to put your notebook away, Harry,
and we’re going to have some fun.” She was at her very best like this. She
still made you feel like you were the most important person in the world, but
she didn’t have any of the affectations of the rich hostess at home. No, now
she was exuberant and natural, a young girl whose eyes shone,
excited to see the next thing life had to offer. She had her jokes, her
little smart remarks at your expense, but you liked it, believe me. She put
her arm through mine and walked me through parts of
She walked me into alleyways that made me wish I had a weapon on me, but she just glowed under the dim lights, smiled at the shady figures lurking here and there, clearly enjoyed herself by shocking her foreign friend, though I did my best to smile throughout it all. “You know, I’ve never taken Ralphie to this place, and I never would. He wouldn’t fit in like you will, Harry.” I liked the comparison. “Let’s keep all this our little secret, Harry.” Suited me fine—I didn’t want her mentioning me to Trilipush either.
She pushed a button on an unmarked wall in a dark street, I couldn’t even tell you where we were. A small hatch at eye level slid aside, black eyes examined us, the hatch slid shut, and the wall opened up to let us into a noisy party, a bar and billiards and dancing to jazz music, men and women comfortable on couches, floor cushions, laps. “Welcome to JP’s, Harry,” she said, ushering me in. It was one surprise after another with your aunt. That evening she was all charm, and I rather thought it was all for me, and I remember thinking, that evening, that for whatever reason, she’d found something in me she was drawn to. I thought I could see a natural progression unfolding, can’t say anyone would’ve blamed me. Now, of course, I’d say she was just a bit of a flirt. Played with fire a bit, she did, your aunt, didn’t know when she’d gone too far, pushed things over a line. Girls like that always look surprised when people turn out not to be toys, when people don’t stop what they’re doing at the girl’s instruction, the second her whim changes.
Mystery readers may enjoy the clues, but are likely to have guessed probable outcomes early on. Intelligent readers of The Egyptologist will enjoy the romp of deception, obsession and personalities.
Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2005
ã 2005 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared
in the February 2005 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Egyptologist.htm
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