Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips


Rating: (Recommended)




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Arthur Phillips speaks with many voices in his new novel, The Egyptologist. The initial narrator is the protagonist, Ralph Trilipush, who heads from Boston to Egypt to hunt for the tomb of a pharaoh. A second narrator appears in the form of a retired private detective who describes a case he worked on decades earlier. Other narration comes in the form of letters. The style and complexity of The Egyptologist will keep keen readers engaged, wondering what really happened. By the end, readers will have enjoyed a fascinating tale of obsessions.


Here’s an excerpt of pp. 116-125:


Sunset on the Bayview Nursing Home

Sydney, Australia

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 from Australia?” He examined my business card and rolled his unlit cigar back and forth between his lips. “I don’t think I’ve ever had any business in Australia.”

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 New York mansion, Macy.

“High-spirited filly,” 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 England, I wouldn’t figure, and to catch a fellow like that in Boston, and for Margaret to win his heart, we’re a pretty happy family here, Mr. Ferrell.” I might not have the exact words, but that was the thrust of it. As I was trying to explain just now, your great-uncle wasn’t all polished over with lacquer like the Marlowes, but if you’ll excuse me for saying it, I knew this was why he was so proud of Trilipush as a son-in-law. No question: this wedding would bump him up a notch or two or three in his Boston social scene.

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 Boston?” He says Margaret introduced them, brought Trilipush round the house one day like a girl who’s bought a fine necklace. She’d seen him give a public lecture, she’d talked to him, become a friend of his, and then had really “taken a shine to the limey.” Were they already in love, then, when she introduced Trilipush to her father? “No, no,” Finneran says, “she brought him around as a favour to me. To have him describe the expedition he was planning, because she knew that a few of my business partners and me are always looking for investment possibilities, and Margaret thought Ralph’s project sounded promising. Clever girl, that time.” Sure enough, Finneran’s “money club” had looked into it and decided to back the Egyptian expedition. (Macy, pay attention: Finneran has bet money, his friends’ money, his daughter’s heart, and his social standing on Trilipush.) “All the while, I was telling Margaret, that’s a fine fellow there, and unless I’m mistaken, he’s looking at you with a certain look. She didn’t believe me. She’s actually quite shy, Mr. Ferrell, but I know these things. Not long after we told Trilipush we wanted in on his expedition, he asked me for Margaret’s hand, very gentlemanly, old English.

“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 Oxford, questions about military records, trouble with his Harvard chief And what would follow from dropping a bomb like that? Well, here’s a tip, Macy: it’s never quite clear just who’ll get blown up in situations like this one. Think for a minute, because you should know how our business operates by now. First, I needed my questions answered, and I can’t get answers from an angry, panicked ex-father-in-law-to-be. Second, you and I are in a business that works by the clock; we can’t make a living selling information; we sell time. So, later in this conversation, when we proposed to Mr. Finneran that he become our new client, we set his expectations that a background investigation of his daughter’s fiancé would take some weeks. And, finally, information (and the time it takes to collect it) only has value if the buyer will pay for it. If I started telling Finneran the truth that day, he’d’ve seen me out the door in a rage. It was clear to me from day one that Finneran never wanted to hear anything true about his Trilipush, and later events proved me correct in this. No, I saw plain that Finneran would pay for reassurance. And a sensitive detective provides his clients what they need and will pay for. Lesson from Ferrell: satisfied clients pay.

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 Egypt to get to the bottom of the Caldwell and Marlowe deaths anyway, and to interrogate Trilipush about them. So I wanted an address and an itinerary for Trilipush, and that was all. There was nothing to be gained that day by revealing word one about English sodomists or fine young Australian men dead in the desert while English captains who lied about their education turned up safe and sound in Boston winning the hearts of incredibly beautiful young women and spending honest men’s money. No, I could be back on a boat, to Alexandria, in six days, and I’d no interest in bothering your family any more than absolutely necessary to have my information and to soothe your great-uncle’s worries for a fee. Finneran gave me Trilipush’s address in Cairo, loaned me a copy of the expedition’s investor prospectus to read while I was staying at the Parker House, and we shook hands. I said I’d have a preliminary background report for him in a few days, perhaps longer.

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 Boston, conducting my investigations. I don’t know what she might’ve told you over the years. I don’t compliment myself that I made a permanent impression on her, but at the time, I won’t say she was indifferent to me.

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 USA, and I told her very little, just asked if her beloved ever mentioned an Australian soldier named Paul Caldwell. No, she’d never heard the name. I did tell her a bit about poor old Paul the Egypt lover, what life’s like when you’re not born with every advantage, as she and Trilipush’d been. “Oh, Mr. Ferrell, you are shaming me terribly,” she said, pretending to look ashamed. “But Daddy, you know, came over here with almost nothing, so it’s not how you think at all. We’re really very simple people.” She smiled, not simple at all, I’ll never forget it. She had a way about her, that one did.

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 Boston, they’re not made of the same stuff, honest. I’ve had a few of Daddy’s managers look at me a certain way, some of the higher-up boys at the store, and there are some jazz men in a few of the places I go now and again, when Daddy and Inge let me, and there are some of Daddy’s business associates, J. P. O’Toole and them, but Ralph, well, he’s a whole other world, like out of storybooks for little girls. All my girlfriends say I must be pinching myself. He’s an explorer, you know, and from a family of explorers, and practically English nobility, but not the rich kind, and his accent—I mean you have a lovely accent too, Harry, but different. And he’s all alone in the world, his parents have died and he was an only child, but he had these wonderful friends at University in England, arid one of them, his best friend, got killed at the end of the War, and Ralph was so heartsick, he just wanted to leave it all behind, even his country estate, which costs more money to keep up than he’s got, although he can always go back and open it up again if he wants to, and we might end up living there for a bit after the wedding. Anyway, after the War he came here to finish his book, which was a big hit, considering, you know, that it’s history, and then he started teaching at Harvard, which is the college here, and quite the best one in all of America, and now he’d rather live in America and write and teach, and after this expedition, he’s going to have pots of money, believe me, if you knew about this Egyptian stuff like Ralph does, you have to know where to look, but gold is just sitting under the sand over there.”

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 Boston thing like me. . .“ And here, I thought, in her false modesty, she was skirting a hidden truth. I suspected she might’ve had some hesitations for good reason, something she could only sense but not yet say. I don’t compliment myself too much to say my presence helped her make comparisons, but it was clear that if she talked enough to a fellow totally unlike Trilipush, she might start realising a few things about how honest men reacted to her, and to women in general. She added: “And I did Daddy a favour by bringing Ralph to his club. I mean, I got to show him Ralph before one of the big museums funded him.”

Who was the poor, dead friend from the War? “Oh, yes, another archaeologist, his best friend from Oxford. Get a load of this name, Harry: Captain Hugo St. John Marlowe. Well, during the War, they were always taking leaves to go do their digging, and once he and Marlowe found this thing together—very mysterious name, Fragment C—and they thought they could guess where a tomb would be as a result of it, a tomb just positively filled with gold and art. They were going to look for the tomb together the next chance they could, but then Ralph got sent off to fight in Turkey, which was just awful, while Marlowe had to stay in Egypt and wait, which he did, of course, because they were best chums from Oxford, and blood brothers, but for a while in Turkey, Ralph was separated from his men, and back in Egypt they actually thought he was dead, and Ralph had to make it home practically alone, and when he finally made his way back to Egypt, well just a few days before that, poor Marlowe had gone missing, but had left this Fragment C in his tent, and Ralph took it for safekeeping, not knowing if Marlowe was alive or not, and then when he had to accept that Marlowe was dead, Ralph just wanted to put all the pain of the War behind him, so he brought Fragment C with him to Boston, and that’s what made his scholarly reputation and got him a job at Harvard, and— oh, just listen to me go on. You can imagine the effect of all these adventure stories on a naïve young Boston girl, Harry.”

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 Turkey and Egypt? Loyal friends waiting for each other before trying to dig up and share pots of gold? Treasure maps readily available in missing men’s tents? Did she think I believed it? And, Macy, I must stress that I didn’t tell her anything of my suspicions. I was honourable to my clients and to the innocent. Judge me from this: I could’ve sold out Trilipush a thousand times to your aunt, but I didn’t.

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 Boston from this second expedition. This girl had been used, her family money taken on the strength of his English manner, and now he was done with her. Aside from her money, what else would he want with her? He was certainly an invert, like Marlowe and Quint, I knew that even then, before I’d met him. Then it occurred to me: probably he’d been Marlowe’s high-class fancy man before going off to Egypt; probably Trilipush was Marlowe’s discreetly kept amusement all the way back at Oxford, not a student obviously, just living in Marlowe’s world, taking Marlowe’s money in exchange for illicit affections. That explained witnesses to his presence there but no official record. Then Trilipush joins up for the War with Marlowe in exchange for continued payments, and heads off to Egypt with him, where they gallivant about in the English fashion. But then he gets sent to Turkey without his rich protector, too bad. Back he comes (or runs, more likely) from the Turkish battles to discover to his horror that in his absence poor, young, Egypt-loving digger Paul Caldwell (an Australian of all things, thinks the bankrupt but still snobbish English pansy) has become the innocent object of Marlowe’s amorous obsessions. Take it a step further: maybe Trilipush hadn’t found the treasure map with Marlowe at all: maybe Marlowe and Caldwell had found it while Trilipush was in Turkey. Trilipush, back from Gallipoli, surprises the pair and, motivated by jealousy of his Juliet and greed over their secret find in the desert, kills both Marlowe and Caldwell, hides their bodies, and goes to the USA. Well, I’d some work ahead of me to prove all this, and I still didn’t understand why his military records had been suppressed, but this shows how early I’d already understood the main facts of the matter, Macy, as I explained them to you when I met you that evening at the Parker House Hotel after returning from my newest client’s home.

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 laughingstock of Boston society. I felt, even that first lemonade, my hands being tied, and none of my choices were good.

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 Boston it never would’ve occurred to me to visit. “Don’t you be worried there, Harry, I know my way around, we’ll be just fine.

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



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