[14 January 2013]
Rahotep is back. King Tut’s favorite Seeker of Mysteries—that’s “detective” to you and me—returns for a third installment in Nick Drake’s Egypt, having proved his worth in his previous adventures chronicled in Nefertiti and Tutankhamun. Rahotep is a likeable narrator, a decent man living in a corrupt and dangerous time, whose analytical ability and dogged pursuit of truth serve him well. At least, they serve him well when they don’t threaten him with premature death at the hands of criminal masterminds and corrupt politicians, but hey, that’s just another day at the office for a Seeker of Mysteries.
Egypt kicks off some time after the events of Tutankhamun. King Tut is dead, and Queen Ankhesenamun is in a tight spot: she is without an heir, her elderly husband King Ay is at death’s door, the insurgent general Horemheb is plotting a coup, and traditional enemies, the Hittites, are making trouble—and winning battles—to the northeast. As for Rahotep, he has troubles of his own, mainly financial ones: he’s an honest man in a corrupt society, and such a fellow rarely enjoys a profitable career. Things get a lot worse for him, though, following the murder of a close friend, apparently the result of Rahotep’s own questions following a series of grisly murders. In other words, things start badly for our hero, and proceed to get worse fast.
Fortune favors the brave, however, and Rahotep is no office-bound wallflower. The Queen herself, remembering his previous service and looking for a man she can trust, offers him a unique assignment: to journey north, to the Hittite capitol itself, and offer an unprecedented deal to her enemies. In exchange for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a long-term truce between the two kingdoms, the Queen will consent to marry the son of the Hittite king, making him the de facto King of Egypt. It is a bold offer, though one that could result in accusations of treason being hurled at the Queen herself. Thus the need for secrecy and trust. Alas, trust is a rare commodity, and secrecy even more so…
Rahotep journeys off in the company of the Hittite ambassador, the Egyptian ambassador, and several companions including the commander of the Queen’s guard. Mysteries deepen as they travel north on the Nile, particularly those concerning the death of Rahotep’s friend and the (not coincidental, we suspect) region’s burgeoning opium trade. Despite his determination to solve his friend’s murder and wreak vengeance on the perpetrators, however, Rahotep is forced to pay attention to his mission: the Queen’s offer, and the Hittites’ response.
This mission, and that response, form the bulk of the novel, with the last third being a genuinely suspenseful ride as Rahotep and his companions navigate their way through hostile territory. An array of colorful supporting characters crop up, including the Hittite Crown Prince and the bandit leader Innana, whose potent mix of sexual allure and viciousness allow her to keep a tight grip on the outlaws who pledge allegience to her. Such characters are introduced at regular intervals, keeping the proceedings lively even as the road-trip storyline ensures that the story ticks along nicely.
Rahotep’s narration is clear and precise, and is another big reason why these books are so readable. It’s tough to see how any reader could turn away from an opening line such as this: “I stared down at five severed heads that lay in the dust, at the godforsaken crossroads, in the small dark hour before dawn.” But it’s not just grisly sensationalism that keeps the reader engaged. There’s a great deal of fast-moving dialogue, punctuated by moments of elevated lyricism that manages to avoid sounding overly lofty or phony. Upon his first view of the sea, Rahotep is nearly overcome: “I know the sea is made of water, but surely it is made of light, too; for it danced with brilliance, turning one sun into thousand of points of sparkling, ever-changing light.”
Elsewhere, Rahotep observes a desert sunrise: “The rim of the world took on a blue tint, which gradually spread, until the horizon brightened, and light began to reoccupy the world. Ra, the Sun, was reborn into a new day. But what it revealed, up ahead of us, in the blinding white and gold of sunrise, was the image of our nightmare…”
Like the Brother Cadfael mysteries of Ellis Peters, these Egyptian mysteries make clever use of a historical milieu to add a unique spin to the mystery genre. Part whodunit, part historical novel, part thriller, the Rahotep novels of Nick Drake are throughly entertaining and engrossing. You don’t have to be an avid mystery reader to enjoy them, though it certainly doesn’t hurt. You just need a willingness to be transported to another time and place, to occupy another point of view. And isn’t that the point of reading in the first place?