Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Literature: The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips

The audio book is a media genus that has come into its own. Much to the chagrin of those East Coast scholars who vilify the audio book as an affectation for the lazy reader, they have become very popular and it is not hard to see why. More people have longer and longer commutes to work. This offers excellent opportunity for audio books and has set up a veritable cottage industry of audio book sales at travel stop establishments. Most newly published books are also recorded and one can find many classics in audio also.

The audio book as a literary delivery mechanism offers an additional element for evaluation and criticism to the standard elements of plot, language, character, and structure. This new element is narration. A good narrator can make or break an audio book. The best narrators have distinctive voices, many with mild speech impediments. I cite James Wood’s narration of Stephen King’s "Secret Window, Secret Garden” from King’s Four Past Midnight. Wood’s light lisp and Irish swagger perfectly frame this tale of madness and murder. Another King story that is superbly narrated is Insomnia. King is a master at writing from the perspective of the elderly and the choice of the the 79-year-old Eli Wallach seems a stroke of genius. Those are just two examples.

Presently, The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips offers the added bonus of multiple narrators effecting the requisite regional accents to convey the story with maximum authenticity. Simon Prebble is superb as the haughty and blissfully arrogant, self-important Victorian Ralph M. Trilipush, Harvard Egyptologist by way of Oxford. His voice is provincial, educated, and vainglorious. Gianfranco Negroponte, despite that superbly Italian name, perfectly captures the coarse and common Australian detective Harold Ferrell. Bianca Mato is convincing as Trilipush’s laudanum-addicted fiancée, Margaret Finneran. The presence of these exceptional narrators illuminates both the voice and language of the story in a way not completely possible by simple reading of the story. This narration also helps frame the characters and their respective development within the story.

The story behind The Egyptologist is at the very least circuitous. It is presented to the reader as written correspondence: letters, telegrams, journal entries, book excerpts, introductions, and dedications. Through this mechanism we are introduced to Ralph M. Trilipush, Harvard-employed Egyptologist, whose current claim to fame is his translation of three fragments of pornographic poetry by the ostensible poet-king Atum-hadu. The year is 1922 and Trilipush begins the festivities with a letter to his betrothed Margaret Finneran, whose father is a rich American who invests in Trilipush’s heavily touted plan to locate and excavate the tomb of the said king. Trilipush makes all of his plans in the shadow of fellow Englishman, Howard Carter, who discovered the famous tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922. Trilipush spares little expense in denigrating his colleague in his correspondence. Grandiose and grandiloquent, he expounds at length on his own import and potential fame.

In a parallel series of correspondences from an Australian nursing home in the mid-1950s, a former Australian private investigator, Harold Ferrell, details a case he investigated 30 years earlier to one Laurence Macy III, nephew of the earlier mentioned Margaret Finneran, once betrothed of Ralph M. Trilipush. With a thick Australian twang, Ferrell dictates the story of millionaire brewer, Barnabas Davies, who before his death employed Ferrell and an army of other international investigators to find the various progeny of said Davis throughout the world. Ferrell spends most of his time on the mysterious Paul Caldwell, first son of Barnabas Davies and an impoverished Australian tart. Ferrell’s investigation takes him from Sidney, to England, to America. Ferrell’s story of Caldwell follows the ghost from his poverty in Sidney, to his life in a library run by Communists, to a stint in the circus and finally his participation with an Australian Expeditionary Force in Egypt, where Caldwell disappears and is thought to have died in 1918.This represents the epidermis of the story. The Egyptologist is chock full of clues and experienced mystery readers will pick up on them readily and be perfectly correct in his or her assumptions. That fact does not make is book any less enjoyable. The narration and language associated with each of the major characters makes this audio book a must-listen.

This review was first published in Blogcritics.org

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006