Herodotus got around rather a lot for a fellow who lived some 2,500 years before last-minute airfare deals. In his Histories, he wrote that “in the world besides are not to be seen so many things of unspeakable greatness” as in Egypt. Arthur Phillips’s sophomore effort (following 2003’s Prague) is not a thing of unspeakable greatness—its greatness is quite in the realms of the speakable.
The Egyptologist excavates one Ralph Trilipush (an anagram of Arthur Phillips), a young British academic and author of the much sniggered over “Desire and Deceit in Ancient Egypt (Collins Amorous Literature, 1920, new edition through Harvard University Press expected, 1923).” In 1922, Trilipush embarks for Cairo to unearth the tomb of King Atum-Hadu (“Atum-is-aroused”). His journals, sketches, and unsent letters provide the bulk of the novel, though Phillips interweaves them with the reminiscences of Harold Ferrell, a tetchy private detective investigating a long-lost Australian heir.
The tale gallivants from London to Boston to Cairo, stopping in at circuses, speakeasies, ocean liners, and the well-appointed apartments of an invert. The two narrators, each splendidly untrustworthy, unspool the details of several sinister murders. Admittedly, that puzzle isn’t so puzzling. Rather Phillips succeeds best when he leaves mystery alone to linger over wordplay, exotic detail, and remarkable acts of self-deceit and self-creation. There are also titillating extracts from Trilipush’s publication, such as “Quatrain 42, Atum-Hadu Favours Four Acrobatic Sisters.” Ankhs for the memories.