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By (November 1, 2009) No Comment

The Murder of King Tut: The Plot to Kill the Child King – a Nonfiction Thriller

By James Patterson and Martin Dugard
Little, Brown and Company, 2009

The Murder of King Tut begins with an Author’s Note from James Patterson (co-writer Martin Dugard only speaks, apparently, when spoken to), and it lolls in that particular admixture of pomposity and complacency you only ever find in extremely commercially successful idiots, regardless of their profession. Patterson’s nominal profession is writing, and in his Note he tells us about the nineteen “bulleted points” that he keeps handy whenever he’s writing (the study, the living room, kitchen … the one next to the toilet is probably laminated). Point number eighteen is all in capital letters, he tells us, because it’s so important: RESEARCH HELPS. DON’T FAKE ANYTHING – NOT BRAIN TUMORS, NOT DROWNING, NOT EVEN A BEE STING.

It’s effrontery, but it’s at least sententious effrontery. We could wink at it, but Patterson’s Note just keeps hammering away – how he and “Marty” immersed themselves in their researching of ancient Egypt, how everything they wrote was based on long hours of research. “It’s nothing new for histories to be speculative,” he has the nerve to lecture us, “but there’s a difference between guessing and basing a theory on cold hard facts. We chose the facts.”

Despite the book’s title, Patterson et al actually have two distinctly separate subjects, narrated in alternating groups of breathless, two-page chapters. The first of these is the story of Howard Carter, whose 1922 discovery of the young pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of Kings set the world ablaze with an interest in all things ancient Egypt. The second is a cliché-choked fantasy about the alleged murder of Tutankhamen by an impromptu cabal. The two narratives share no themes and do not intertwine – they simply happen in the same book. Patterson admits to us that he was tempted to give Carter’s story a whole book of its own; the fact that it’s a grafted half of this book stands as testament to the fact that editors can’t stop bestselling authors from making fools of themselves.

Carter’s story is worth a whole book (his own accounts of his adventures in the Valley of Kings make great reading, including his famous reply when asked by those behind him if he could glimpse anything in the undefiled tomb he was finally opening, “Yes, wonderful things”) and has received them. What that story gets here is a thin, stuttering echo of the official records – with a heavy dose of scurrilous scandal-mongering mixed in. Patterson’s inexorable Note forewarns us:

As for Howard Carter, he is almost a contemporary, so his life was much easier to document. I resisted the temptation to speculate about his relationship with Lady Evelyn Herbert, though I thoroughly hoped to find a steamy journal entry that would allow me to muse at will. You can draw your own conclusions.

In case you have any trouble drawing your own conclusions, you can always turn to the nonfiction offered at the book’s end, at Carter’s burial:

Years after breaking off their affair, the one love of Carter’s life appeared at the graveside. Lady Evelyn was a small woman, expensively dressed, wearing a broad black hat. Her father had been furious with Carter about their clandestine romance.

Guess temptation got the better of our writing team. Discovery of the pertinent steamy journal entries will just have to wait. It could happen some day – you never know.

But the more prominent of the two parallel narratives is that of the “Boy King” Tutankhamen, the New Kingdom pharaoh who ruled from 1333 to 1324 B. C. If Patterson really had stuck only to the known facts about this figure (whose famous golden death-mask has become the world’s accepted shorthand for all things ancient Egypt), all of those chapters together would be approximately as long as this paragraph. In order to goose that figure up to around 120 pages, Patterson has to do quite a bit of that speculative guessing he so pedantically warns us against at the outset of all this nonsense. In other words, he has to lie his sarcophagus off.

Which would be fine if this book were being billed as just another James Patterson airport thriller. He’s written and co-written hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of such things – they’re fast-paced and harmless, making Patterson money while costing his readers no more than the price of the book and a few million brain cells. I’m not exactly certain what a “nonfiction thriller” is, but “nonfiction” is clearly meant to differentiate this book from fiction, and Patterson’s smug Author’s Note with its posted rule about NOT FAKING anything seconds this impression. But The Murder of King Tut is absolutely loaded with fiction. It contains not one single page on which something isn’t openly –and usually ineptly – faked. Here’s a snippet of a scene between Nefertiti and her husband, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV as they sit for a sculptor doing their portrait:

“You look divine,” purred Nefertiti now, though it was she who felt beautiful. The sheer white gown, the floral headdress, and priceless golden amulets decorating her arms accentuated her physical attributes and radiance. The makeup, which she and the pharaoh both wore, did more for him than it did for her.

“I am divine,” laughed Amenhotep IV. It was their little joke.

There is no historical evidence whatsoever that such a scene took place. Virtually everything known about ancient Egypt argues that it not only never happened but never could have happened. To make these two sarcastically joke about their popular perception as semi-divine beings is to import to them the knowing cynicism of 21st century ceremonial monarchy. And: dialogue? In a nonfiction work about ancient Egypt? Scrupulous research leads to “it was their little joke”?

The sculptor is taking a long time to make his rough sketches (never mind the fact that we have no idea that such sessions happened), and Nefertiti is impatient. There is nothing in the historical record about any of this, no hint of what kind of woman she was personally, but Patterson and his little helper write:

A slender, shaven-headed package of genius and raw sexuality, she had the habit of making men weak in the knees by her mere presence. (Her name means “a beautiful woman has come.”) Nefertiti was also known for her poise, but at the moment she was seized by an urge to slap someone hard across the face.

Whether it should be her anxious wimp of a husband or the silly sculptor with the pleasant beard who was taking hours to draw a simple sketch, she couldn’t decide.

We chose facts? There’s precisely one fact in this passage: the rough translation of Nefertiti’s name. All the rest of it is rather unremarkable historical fiction. Patterson has never approached the writing of history before this, but Martin Dugard has – for many years he’s been a freelancer for major periodicals. It stands to reason he’s had far greater exposure to fact-checkers than Patterson has, and even if his contract for The Murder of King Tut frees him from such concerns in a book destined for the New York Times Bestseller List, the exposure should have counted for something. No matter how lucrative this partnership stood to be for him, Dugard should have had more regard for the truth than to allow whatever actual research he did to be garnished with hackneyed lies like this. Both writers share the blame for this deceitful little slap of a book, but not equally.

And it isn’t just that the omnipresent fictional elements are in themselves lackluster – again, this could be forgiven (the writing of genuinely good historical fiction being notoriously difficult). No, these elements are also actively misleading for any reader innocent enough to pick up this book seeking accurate depictions of ancient Egypt. Take this tender little moment after her pharaoh husband has died in flagrante delicto right on top of her and Nefertiti finds herself next to his corpse:

Nefertiti gazed down at her husband. Then she sat on the bed beside him, gently running her hand across his shaved head. She traced a lone finger down to his chest. Then she stroked his face, memorizing every detail.

These would be their last moments together, and she wanted to remember him as the powerful man he had once been, not the weak and whimsical pharaoh he had become. Nefertiti shuddered to think what would soon happen to this body she had known so well.

Was Amenhotep’s head shaved, or do our authors just assume that? Would she have voluntarily sat on a bed with a dead body, or would she perhaps have been religiously – or even superstitiously – reluctant to do so? Would she have touched that body? Would she have stroked its face, or would she have considered that a ritual defilement, or even unclean? Would she have thought – or cared – to memorize every detail, or did she – and perhaps her people as a whole – consider such details meaningless in the face of the great change now come upon her husband? Had he deteriorated from a powerful man into a pathetic failure, or are our authors simply making that up? Would she have shuddered thinking about the embalming process to follow, when she likely believed such a process was the whole point of a person’s life? Patterson has imagined a death-room scene that fits perfectly into a 20th century upper middle class Scarsdale bedroom and then transported it three thousand years into the past. This is not only speculation, it’s pat, lazy, derivative speculation. It gives legitimate speculation a bad name.

And what of Tutankhamen himself, our title character in this nonfiction thriller? On the basis of no facts whatsoever, Patterson and Dugard paint him as a sniveling nincompoop, a testy, flailing peacock who’s constantly exasperating his viceroy, Aye, his general, Horemheb, and his queen (who’s also his sister) Ankhesenpaaten. He sputters, he misjudges everything, he’s entirely unworthy of his high position. When he’s facing the Canaanites (no evidence that he ever did such a thing, but you were probably expecting that), our authors give us all the charming details:

To his shame, Tut’s throat instantly closed in terror. He threw up in his mouth.

In scene after scene – each unbelievable even as fiction and all simply inexcusable in a work billing itself the way this one does – this hysterical popinjay indulges himself in every cliché Hollywood has ever thought up for stereotypical pampered royalty, as in this scene where Aye so plausibly taunts his teenaged absolute monarch about his manifest sexual inadequacies:

“From the look of things, there are no arrows in your quiver,” continued Aye.

That was the last straw. “Guards,” commanded Tut. “Seize him.”

The contingent of six royal guards moved forward and towered over Aye, yet they were apprehensive, as if looking to Aye for leadership rather than Tut.

“Now!” Tut screamed, rage and humiliation pouring through. He was the pharaoh. He could impregnate every virgin in Egypt if he wished.

Exactly six guards? All taller than Aye? Feeling apprehensive? And “Tut” (he’s virtually never referred to by his full name) screaming? And feeling rage and humiliation? Thinking angry thoughts about virgins? Or for that matter, Tutankhamen as somehow impotent? Patterson simply makes all this up. There’s not the smallest shred of evidence that anything like this ever happened. This is more than guesswork – this is guesswork run amok.

The kernel of Tutankhamen’s story that first intrigued Patterson is the same insignificant anomalous detail that’s snared dozens of other writers: was the teen pharaoh murdered? This kernel comes from exactly two facts: the skull of Tutankhamen’s mummy has a crack at its base, and tests show the boy died at age eighteen. Just that. No ambiguous mentions in any written records, no hints of a nefarious plot. Just an obviously premature death and a small crack in a cadaver’s skull.

Of all the possible explanations for that crack, murder is the very last, the least likely. Not only is the opening extremely similar to that described in the embalming process (the brain wasn’t always extracted through the nasal passage), but it could easily have been caused during the horrific man-handling to which the mummy was subjected by Carter’s team. The cadaver – which has the consistency of dried, brittle paper – was forcibly pried out of the dried resin of its sarcophagus, its arms and legs were dislocated or broken, its torso was sawn in half, and its head was chopped off its shoulders. Patterson’s on guard not to do any speculating, but still: it’s a lot less of a jump to say the skull got damaged during its rude entry into the 20th century than to say all the many, many things Patterson and Dugard end up saying.

They say plenty. This is, after all, the whole point of The Murder of King Tut. If you’ve come this far, I doubt I’m giving much away to let you in on their fevered revelations, especially since they actually use those two simple words that are absolutely guaranteed to invoke the ire of historians (and certain critics). See if you can spot them:

Tut was killed by a conspiracy of the three people closest to him in life- Ankhesenpaaten, Aye, and Horemheb. Hundreds of thousands have visited the Tut exhibit, many millions believe they know the story, but few understand the sad tragedy of the Boy King.

Case closed.

After the breathtaking arrogance of this summary, there follows a tiny, lethal bit of factual backpedalling, just the smallest hint to the effect that there might possibly be other interpretations lurking out there in the wide world:

Today, Tuts mummy resides in a plain wooden tray that Carter had built for him. Investigators over the years have discovered that he had a broken right ankle that seems to have been in a cast; he had suffered a fracture of the right leg that was severe and possibly infected; he even suffered from an impacted wisdom tooth.

But Tut was murdered.

Says who? You, who’ve been doing nothing but lying for 200 pages so vapidly and stupidly written they practically come with color coding? You, who’ve filled 90 percent of those pages with completely invented dialogues, monologues, and viewpoints? You, who’ve managed even to speculate and guess with such unerring inaccuracy, such contemptuous disregard for the truth, let alone the honest curiosity of your readers? No.

The detail so quickly brushed over in that last passage is, uncharacteristically, true: medical scans of Tutankhamen’s mummy show that he suffered a bad break (not a fracture) of his right leg (and that it happened while he was still alive, rather than during Carter’s manhandling two thousand years later), and there’s strong evidence that this injury not only became infected but gangrenous. Those scans tell another story: they say the young pharaoh broke his leg and died of resulting infection only a few days later. No cabal. No murder. No idiotic “case” and no closing thereof. But even James Patterson probably couldn’t make a bestseller out of The Clumsiness of King Tut, so what’s the truth between a couple of collaborators?

The one clear victim in all this? Rule #18. It never had a chance.

Ascanio Tedeschi is a graduate student in the classics, born and raised in Rome. He periodically shares his passion for debunking with Open Letters.

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