Goth Chick News: One from the Vaults, The Egyptologist Remains One of My Favs

Goth Chick News: One from the Vaults, The Egyptologist Remains One of My Favs

The Egyptologist (Random House paperback edition, May 2005). Right: Canadian edition

You might assume that with stacks of books waiting patiently in every corner of GCN’s Black Gate offices, I shouldn’t have time to read something twice. And that assumption would be a correct one if I could consistently maintain a reasonable amount of self-discipline. However, I am a firm believer in the benefits of comfort food, no matter how nutritionally deficient it is, and that goes double for the mental comfort food that is a remarkable story. So yes, when I’m having a lousy week, I grab a cinnamon PopTart and one of my favorite stories off the bookshelf. The beauty of the re-read is that you can generally plow through the entire tale in roughly the same amount of time it takes to eat an entire box of PopTarts.

With that background in mind, I want to tell you about The Egyptologist. A quick peruse through the Black Gate archives confirmed my suspicion that I never wrote about this book when I first read it, probably because back then, we were still in print, and I wrote only one article per issue. First published in hardcover in 2004, I purchased The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips, to take with me on one of my dream trips; a three-week tour through Egypt in the company of Medu Hassan, a researcher from the Cairo Museum. This pre-dates e-books being a thing, as the Sony Libre wouldn’t hit the market until later that year. So back then, traveling with reading material meant packing books and this particular hardcover was a last-minute addition, added to my bag primarily due to the title and my destination, and not because I knew what I was getting into.

Ironically, as I look up The Egyptologist online today, I see that it doesn’t get the best reviews. Amazon shows it as less than four out of five stars, while Goodreads give it a mediocre 3.3. I could assume this means I alone believe this to be one of the most interesting, albeit disturbing, stories I’ve ever read. Without the slightest bit of intellectual snobbery, I can tell you this more likely because The Egyptologist is not a tale which is easily unraveled. It literally took me three readings to fully grasp all its nuances and complexities and having just put it down for the umpteenth time, I can also say that I pick up at least two new details in every reading that further reveals the story.

The important bit here is that The Egyptologist is incredible enough to entertain me time and again.

The Egyptologist is told via the diaries, letters and other papers belonging to three different people; Egyptologist Ralph Trilipush, his fiancé Margaret Finneran, and an Australian detective, Harold Ferrell. The story takes place during and around the early 1920’s when Howard Carter was on the cusp of his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, though Ferrell’s character writes from some thirty years in the future and is recounting his version of the events from memory.

Arthur Phillips

Early on in the story, all three of the primary characters seem to be exactly what they appear to be. Trilipush is a professor of Egyptology on the trail of a little-known pharaoh. His wealthy, soon-to-be father-in-law is funding his expedition to Egypt to locate the pharaoh’s tomb, much like Howard Carter’s British benefactor Lord Carnarvon was funding the Tut dig. Meanwhile the beautiful, sad and sickly Margaret awaits her hero’s return, after which they will be married in splendor and live a fairytale life in the somewhat decaying splendor of Trilipush Hall in Kent. Ferrell is a young, ambitious detective who has been engaged to track down the bastard sons of a dying baron of industry; an interesting though seemingly unrelated venture.

What happens over the subsequent 400 pages is an incredibly disturbing, at times even stomach-turning series of events during which nothing is straightforward. No one is what they seem as they are described and unmasked through the narratives of other characters. Each character feels they are the wronged hero/heroine, while hiding behind secrets that run from humorous to murderously horrible.

What makes Phillip’s story truly unique is how it is clearly one story on the surface, and an entirely more enigmatic one when you dig it. In preparing for this article, I found the notes from a few book clubs which took up The Egyptologist shortly after it was published. My first thought was whether they had even read the same book I was looking up. Then I realized that this story is so multi-faceted, that a one-time reading could easily be misconstrued. So, here is the summary from the publisher:

From the bestselling author of Prague comes a witty, inventive, brilliantly constructed novel about an Egyptologist obsessed with finding the tomb of an apocryphal king. This darkly comic labyrinth of a story opens on the desert plains of Egypt in 1922, then winds its way from the slums of Australia to the ballrooms of Boston by way of Oxford, the battlefields of the First World War, and a royal court in turmoil.

Just as Howard Carter unveils the tomb of Tutankhamun, making the most dazzling find in the history of archaeology, Oxford-educated Egyptologist Ralph Trilipush is digging himself into trouble, having staked his professional reputation and his fiancée’s fortune on a scrap of hieroglyphic pornography. Meanwhile, a relentless Australian detective sets off on the case of his career, spanning the globe in search of a murderer. And another murderer. And possibly another murderer. The confluence of these seemingly separate stories results in an explosive ending, at once inevitable and utterly unpredictable.

Does this get to the heart of The Egyptologist? Yes and no. More succinctly, does the story qualify as fodder for GCN? I definitely believe so as there is a horror building beneath the surface of the entire novel, which only truly reveals itself in the final chapters. Murderers, liars, cheaters and worse are all here beneath the veneer of the Gilded Age propriety of people who cannot see the depths of their own inner darkness.

I hope this has intrigued you enough to pick up The Egyptologist and give it a read, or two, or three. And if you are already a fan, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m here with my cinnamon PopTarts, ready to listen.

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Rich Horton

Sounds very intriguing, and not at all like the Kingsley Amis/Robert Conquest novel called THE EGYPTOLOGISTS!

Keith West

OK, you’ve sold me. I’m going to have to give this one a try.

David Montgomery

Yes travelling with reading materiel prior to eReaders sometimes meant paying for overweight luggage.


My imagination must be sadly lacking, because it never occurred to me that other readers would find this book to be anything less than a sublime achievement.

Sue, an excellent review on your part.

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