By Arthur Phillips
New York: Random House, 2004
ISBN # 0-7394-5151-0
383 pagess

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2008

Dazzling, complex, funny and thought provoking novel. The plot is phenomenally complex, the structure quite clever and the characters deliciously delightful creations, just enough over the top to let us know early on we are in some sort of spoof. When the complexity of spoof is fully revealed, which wasn’t until the final pages, there is a satisfying “click” to the novel like the sound of a well-made safe locking.

The novel is sort of narrated by a retired detective, Harold Ferrell. He is in a nursing home and has visions of grandeur about his mediocre career. The year is 1955. He is contacted (a single unanswered letter) by Mister Macy who is doing genealogical research on his family and one of Ferrell’s cases concerned Macy’s aunt and his grand father.

Ferrell sees this contact as his last hope for glory and dialogues with the silent Macy with letters about “the case,” and reams of relevant data, all the time suggesting to Macy that he could have a major book published on this and other cases of the “famous” Detective Ferrell. These letters and documents constitute the text of The Egyptologist. Ferrell’s insistence that this would make a great novel is definitely correct, but perhaps not in the sense he intended.

However, as best we readers know, Macy never responds to Ferrell at all, and certainly isn’t taken in by Ferrell’s desires for him to write about the “famous” detective.

I must admit, however, than as my own family’s historian and genealogist, I would have responded to the near demented Ferrell no matter what. I would have been drooling the whole time over Ferrell’s contribution no matter how transparently self-serving and crazy it was. Were someone to write me from Ireland about a relative of mine, once I got that letter I’d have been on the next flight to Ireland.

The events of the case itself, which Ferrell shares with Macy, took place mainly in 1922 in Boston and Egypt. Ferrell’s letters are from 1955 and the novel shifts back and forth from 1922 and 1955 at will. All the 1955 letters come from Ferrell and the 1922 letters, telegrams and other documents were gathered by Ferrell in 1922 during his well-paid investigations.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll just mention the briefest lines of the geography of the novel in order to anchor a few last comments. Oxford educated Egyptologist Ralph Trilipush, a teacher at Harvard in 1922, interests a group of rich but not very respectable Boston men in a dig he wants to do in Egypt, promising them great wealth. They buy into it and before leaving for Egypt, Trilipush becomes engaged to the daughter of one of those backers.

Trilipush is indeed an Egyptologist, but he is also extraordinarily strange and increasingly demented as he carries out his dream exploration to the wildest extremes.

When Ferrell is called in as detective on this case, things get even stranger since he is a slapstick version of a detective and suffers about the same level of crazy self-delusions of his ability as does Trilipush.

It’s all so much fun, wit and genuine excitement.

The novel is constructed entirely by letters, journals and telegraph wires.

My sole complaint in this charming read was the length and detail of the Trilipush letters about his dig in Egypt, but I’m sure the case can be made that author Phillips is slowly revealing the “unraveling” of Trilipush in those letters. Nonetheless, I think that tack could have been done in a bit briefer fashion.

The novel is fun, often gripping and a funny tale; quite worth a read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett