Egypt

The Pharaoh Key: Not a Good First Impression

As you probably know by now, I’m not exactly a prude when it comes to page-turning action books what the establishment turns its nose up at. I make no secret that I loved The Da Vinci Code, and still read Dan Brown’s books when they are released.

But, to my surprise, I found that I actually do have standards below which I get annoyed. Who’d a thunk it?

The Pharaoh Key was purchased at an airport for a couple of reasons. The first was purely research–I was interested to see what kind of books in the adventure (as opposed to international espionage) genre were selling in sufficient numbers to justify high-value real estate in a Hudson News outlet. The second was that the book looked really fun, and it could also serve as a gift for my father, who enjoys this kind of thing.

The first red light was when my dad, after reading it said he thought it was awful, but since he’s more into the spies than ancient treasure, I assumed that was where he was coming from.

It might actually have been where he was coming from (I didn’t ask him when he read it and haven’t discussed the book with him since), but my own dislike for this one comes from a completely different source: the writing makes Dan Brown look like Oscar Wilde, and the outrageous stuff that happens often throws you out of the plot.

I’m usually fine with that second one, so I dug into it a bit more. Just why did the outlandishness of the whole thing bug me so much?

Perhaps the first part is that, unlike Brown, the actions and descriptions of some of the exotic places didn’t ring true. The way the characters remove themselves from police custody at one point is utterly imbecilic, while the plot point of a lost tribe living in the Egyptian desert rang hollow; for all I know, it might be true, but it just seemed false, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m used to. Maybe that’s because I am an SFF reader. In science fiction and fantasy, authors are experts at making things the reader knows don’t exist seem real. Perhaps I’m spoiled, so when people who have the advantage of usually writing plausible things stretch credibility, I expect them to be better at it than Preston and Child were in this case.

The entire book is full of stuff like that, so my own review, had I left one on amazon, would have been 2 stars. It’s certainly not a one star book: it’s grammatically correct and the writing isn’t actually bad, just a little weak in some key areas.

But, going back to the reason I purchased this one in the first place, I’d like to remind everyone that that my review isn’t the one that matters. I checked Amazon, and readers seem to really like this book, and it’s currently sitting at 4-and-a-half stars. A lot of people have weighed in on it, so it’s not like a couple of the authors’ friends bumped it up.

Clearly, Preston and Child know exactly what their public wants, and write to that target with precision and skill, and while the style might not impress a fellow writer, the ability to find the style and deliver it every single time is extremely impressive. Popular fiction isn’t easy to write, and prose that is technically sound but still appeals to the majority of readers is a finely-honed skill. I probably would have loved this book when I was twelve, and many people still do. That is awesome, and no one should begrudge the authors an iota of their success for catering to their public.

So while I didn’t like this book, I respect it enormously. And now I know what is selling in the adventure thriller market, which was the whole point of the exercise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller, timeless seems to be the exact opposite of the Preston & Child book reviewed above. While theirs is simply written and almost completely asexual, Timeless is very well-written and sexually charged. The only similarity is that both are fast-paced page-turners. You can check out Timeless here.

Agatha Christie’s Worst Book?

I raved about the last Agatha Christie book I read.  It captured my attention and kept me reading long after I should have been in bed.

Not every book can be that good, of course, not even from the Queen of Crime, but the rest had been decent also, giving me a healthy respect for her ability to write consistently.  Well, as it turns out, she was capable of utter clunkers as well.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Of course, Christie didn’t forget how to write a murder mystery, so the parts where people get killed and other people try to figure it all out is all right (not as brilliant as in other books, but decent).  If she’d stuck to that, this one would have been passable.

But she didn’t, and the book went off the rails.

Let’s see what happened.

The big mistake was that she decided to set the murder mystery in Ancient Egypt.  I can see why that might have been attractive: exotic, interesting and, most importantly, different from what she normally did.  It would make the critics sit up and take notice.

Well, it certainly achieved its intended effect of being different, but not necessarily in a good way.  Christie ran into major issues right from the outset.

The first problem she had was that she tried to create an in-depth character study of the men and women in the household.  Even though she succeeded in giving us their personalities, the scene-setting failed spectacularly because we ended up hating every single one of them.  The men were flawed but nearly bearable, but all the women were shrews of the highest order.  While it might have been a realistic portrayal of what life is like when a lot of women are concentrated together (Christie would know more about that than I do), it doesn’t make for attractive reading.  I found myself wishing for a convenient asteroid to wipe them all out.

Worse, the table setting went on for the first 100 pages of the book.  Fortunately, after that, Christie began killing people so the rest of the book was better.

Better, but not perfect, and the reason is unsurprising.

The magic of Christie’s books depends, in my opinion, on the sheer familiarity of the setting and characters.  England in the 20th century (or even France or whatever when the books make you travel) is a place we know.  We might have every single detail wrong, but it exists in our heads as a familiar landscape.  So when Christie tells us about a cottage in the country, it springs to mind, flower garden and all.  The same with an elderly gentleman or aging spinster.  They are all archetypes, and Christie uses that familiarity not only to avoid having to write about them in detail, but also to throw the reader off the scent.  Her murderers often hide behind our own preconceptions.

But what image or idea does a 21st century reader have of a country house in Ancient Egypt?  Despite the constant mention of crops and cattle, I kept seeing an adobe house in the middle of a desert.  I have to concentrate to understand the imagery correctly.

In my own particular case, a good part of the pleasure of reading one of these books is to be taken on a trip into the kindler, gentler society of the 20th century.

In that, as in much else, this one fails.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a monster thriller entitled Ice Station: Death.