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Now in Paperback: Tutankhamun

Tutankhamun: Book of Shadows

by Nick Drake

HarperCollins, 2010

Ancient Egyptians who had any kind of social standing or financial means built themselves elaborate tombs and monuments to lengthen the sound of their renown past the span of their own days. If this is an impulse author Nick Drake shares, he’s got a funny way of showing it: his second novel set in ancient Egypt is titled Tutankhamun and sub-titled Book of Shadows. In the time it takes you to read this review, fourteen more books titled Book of Shadows will have been published. By the time you finish this sentence, 150 more books titled Tutankhamun will have appeared. Back in 2009 when Drake was writing this book, if he’d gone to a writing workshop and announced, “I’m writing a book called Tutankhamun: Book of Shadows,” the entire room would have responded, “So are we!”

Readers who might therefore pass over Drake’s book (now out in paperback) in a benumbed haze are urged to stop, pick it up, and pretend it’s titled Black Lands and Red, or Under Pitiless Stars, or even If He Died – anything, really, other than Tutankhamun: Book of Shadows. Readers are urged to do this because the book is very, very good.

At least you know what you’re getting, which is I guess the whole point of timid publishing these days. Rahotep, our wry and distrusting main character, is the chief of detectives in Thebes, attached to the royal court of the teen pharaoh of the book’s title. Tutankhamun is spindly and lame of body (he uses walking-sticks similar to all the ones found in his tomb), and when a young boy in the city with similar afflictions is found murdered and mutilated, Rahotep wonders if there’s a connection. When more horrific discoveries are made, he’s sure of it – and he moves close to his young ruler in order to protect him, either from a stranger with murderous motives or from the king’s own advisors, some of whom might not like the enlightened rule Tutankhamun plans to bring to his kingdom.

Rahotep is a marvellous creation (I hadn’t read ten pages before I was making a mental note to read Drake’s previous novel, Nefertiti), a smart man who distrusts everything and reflexively reminds himself of the dark underside of everything he sees, as when he and the King are journeying on the river:

From our point of view, I saw dirt-poor villages huddled beneath the shade of date palms, where naked children and dogs swarmed the narrow, crooked mud streets and families lived crowded on top of each other with their animals in one-room dwellings that were little more than stables. In the fields, women in miraculously bright, clean robes tilled the immaculate green and gold rows of barley and wheat, onions and cabbages. It all looked idyllic and peaceful, but nothing is as it seems: these women would toil from dawn until dusk just to pay the grain taxes to work the land, which they probably leased from one elite family, who lived comfortably inside their richly furnished and luxurious property in Thebes.

The mysteries punctuating the book deepen in fits and starts (as embarrassing as it might be for them, most of today’s murder-book authors could really benefit from a week’s immersion in the works of Agatha Christie – starting, in Drake’s case, with Death Comes as the End, of course), but the book’s shining highlights are the scenes of interaction between Rahotep and Tutankhamun, here portrayed as a fascinating mixture of shy teenager and wise old man:

“Let me confess to you, Rahotep, while I know it is the duty of a king to be seen to conquer and kill the lion, most noble of beasts, in truth I have no personal wish to do such a thing. Why would I kill such a wonderful creature, with his wild spirit? I would rather observe his power and grace, and learn from his example. Sometimes, in my dreams, I have the powerful body of a lion, and the wise head of Thoth to think with. But then I awake, and I remember that I am myself. And only a moment later do I remember that I am, and must be, King.’

He gazed at his own limbs as if they were strangers.

‘A powerful body is meaningless without a powerful mind.’

He smiled, almost sweetly, as if he appreciated my clumsy attempt at flattery. I suddenly had the strange idea that he might like me.

Some of the court scenes in which the boy pharaoh proves holds his own against scheming and supercilious councillors (readers will either love or hate Drake’s General Horemheb) are quietly thrilling, and the tension gradually, if phlegmatically, builds, but it’s in character-play that this book truly excels, in scenes the reader can easily imagine, even across the gulf of millennia, as when Rahotep and the king talk about death and life:

‘It is worst in the small hours. I realize death is a day closer. I fear the death of those I love. I fear my own death. I think about the good I have not done, and the love I failed to cherish, and the time I have wasted. And when I have done with all that useless remorse, I think about death’s emptiness. Not to be here. Not to be anywhere at all …’

He said nothing for a moment. I wondered if I had gone too far. But then he clapped his hands and laughed.

‘What wonderful company you are, Rahotep! Such optimism, such cheerfulness…’

‘You are right, lord. I brood. My daughters tell me to cheer up.’

‘They are right to do so. But I am concerned. I hear no word of faith in the Gods in what you say.’

I paused before replying, for suddenly the ground of our conversation felt thin as papyrus.

‘I struggle with my faith. And I struggle to believe. Perhaps that is my personal way of being afraid. Faith tells us that in spirit we never die. But I find, try as I might, that I cannot yet believe that story.’

‘Life itself is holy, Rahotep. The rest is mystery.’

‘Indeed, lord. And sometimes, as I lie there thinking my futile thoughts, the light steals up on me; dawn comes, and the children awake, and outside the street fills up with people and activity, as it does in every street, all through the city, as in every city in the land. And I remember there is work to be done. And I get up.’

As readers of Raymond Chandler will know, there is always work to be done for a man like Rahotep, so we can hope for more of his adventures in future novels. Drake’s next book comes out this autumn, for example.

It’s called Egypt. Sigh.

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