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Book Review: The Murder of Cleopatra

Keeping up with the RomansThe Murder of Cleopatra Cover

The Murder of Cleopatra: History’s Greatest Cold Case

by Pat Brown

Prometheus Books, 2013

 

The opening gambit of professional criminal profiler Pat Brown’s idiotic new book The Murder of Cleopatra is so hilariously self-serving that it’s worth pausing over. Our author is driving through a blizzard in the American heartland when a call comes through to her cell phone from the studio execs at London’s Atlantic Productions. They want her to cook up a special on the death of Cleopatra, but she’s having none of it. Look boys, she tells them, distractedly, gripping the wheel and peering through the storm, “I won’t be involved unless I can determine there is a legitimate reason to doubt that Cleopatra didn’t die by snake or didn’t commit suicide. I don’t make stuff up like a defense expert, just to get a payday.”

The London execs will just have to wait while she checks things out, and that’s tough to do when she’s right in the middle of the Iroquois-infested snowbound wastes of the American Territories, far from the twinkling saloons of San Francisco or the broad avenues of Tammany New York: “Looking at my map for the nearest, most populated location,” she tells us, “I changed course and rolled into the nearest town with a large-enough bookstore, heading straight for the section on Egypt.”

Once she’s hitched up her car outside and flung wide the swinging doors of the bookstore, snow curling in behind her, grunting “the Egypt section – and make it quick” to the nearest nametagged clerk (who’s doing a 10 to 6 shift before he joins his friends in Evanston for a wine tasting and then some karaoke), she settles in to do some reading.

Well, not reading, really – who’s got time for that, after all? Instead, she “skims some opinions,” and “thumbs” her way to the back of a couple of Cleopatra books, becoming more and more intrigued by the fact that “one basic story had been passed down through the centuries and had hardly been questioned by anyone, even the experts in the field.”

Those experts probably did more than skim and thumb, but hell, they didn’t have the boys from Atlantic Productions breathing down their necks! We need answers here, dammit, not just more egghead chatter!

The key, you see, is that this is a crime scene:

The death of Cleopatra, though two thousand years old, is like any other cold case with a suspicious death scene. There is a body, there is a crime scene, and there are witnesses (even if they are only testifying to what they found after the deceased was discovered). Any good crime analyst knows that what one might think to be true on first glimpse may turn out to be completely incorrect when the evidence is analyzed.

“Every aspect of the physical evidence must be factored in,” she pounds out, “the wounds, the position of the body, the time of death, the weapon, the location, the weather … every physical feature of the world encompassing the victim, and an assessment of how each feature might have affected the final moment’s of the victim’s life … one cannot simply accept the words of a few observers or ‘journalists’ or politicians or later writers. What we think we know of a past event is often distorted, and unless we examine all the evidence to uncover the truth, the distortions will remain.”

Parents will no doubt find some of this familiar from when they first tried to teach the concept of time to their toddlers. You walk them back slowly, helping them to grasp the fact that yesterday happened a day ago, that last week is a week gone by, that last year is a year in the past.

Cleopatra didn’t die thirty years ago (“Look at the dust on all these boxes,” Brown sighs as she surveys the police evidence archive, “just my luck I had to pull a case from before computerized records …”). She died in 30 BC. Not only are all the participants dead, not only is the entire civilization in which those participants lived dead, but a thousand other civilizations have since been born, lived a good long life, and died. No wounds. No witnesses. No position of the body. No time of death. No weapon. No location. No weather. No facts at all – only historiography.

But historiography has far too many syllables for Brown. She does a little more skimming and thumbing, she calls the Atlantis execs back. No time for chitter-chatter: “I’m in. Cleopatra was murdered.”

There followed the 2004 payday – er, documentary The Mysterious Death of Cleopatra, a fairly typical History Channel-type production with hysterical jump-cutting and shots of Brown (who’s a very handsome woman) looking earnest. Now we have the book-version of that show, in which Brown wastes no time: she saddles up her car, successfully escapes the Territories, and heads right away to the scene of the crime:

The first place a criminal profiler goes when on a cold case is to the crime scene – or at least to where the crime scene had been. I traveled to Egypt in search of an archeological substitute for the tomb in which Cleopatra and her handmaidens supposedly committed suicide, and for the snake, the very kind of snake that could have struck down all three women in ruthless succession.

There’s 200 more pages of that kind of clap-trap, all of it breathed with the blockheaded sincerity of a 6th grade spelling champ. No hint that those hundreds and thousands of “experts in the field” might have known a thing or two; no self-conscious smile at the idea that a forensic science diploma allows you to glance at ‘evidence’ others have scrutinized and suddenly see The Truth; no allowance made for the fact that Plutarch and Suetonius weren’t making Arab Spring-style recordings with their cell phones. Instead, there’s a story that gets more fanciful as it goes along, spends an enormous amount of time ‘disproving’ tall tales nobody was ever meant to take literally, and finally comes to a conclusion so grandiose you’ll be checking to see if General George Patton has a co-writing credit.

Then Brown wraps the whole thing up with the requisite overblown Afterword, in which she inadvertently wanders close to a truth:

I wondered just how much the people here in modern Egypt and elsewhere actually know about Cleopatra VII, the tough and amazing woman who ruled successfully for nearly twenty years under conditions that would have been trying for any ruler, let alone a female, which was quite an amazing feat. Understanding just how brilliant and determined the last pharaoh was should be an inspiration to girls and women everywhere. Since females have been noticeably absent from power positions in the history of humankind, a clearer portrayal of a woman of Cleopatra’s caliber should be a great addition to our knowledge of world politics and sociology.

It should indeed. But London’s calling.

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