Friday, January 29, 2010

Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead by Nick Drake

There are some great mysteries out there set in ancient Egypt such as Lynda S. Robinson’s excellent Lord Meren series, P. C. Doherty’s Amerotke and Lauren Haney’s Lieutenant Bak. All are amazing authors and I remain a loyal and devoted follower of them, but I was blown away by Nick Drake’s Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead, his debut mystery novel featuring detective Rahotep from Thebes.

Rahotep is summoned to the new capitol city being built by King Akhenaten and his wife-queen Nefertiti, whose beauty is still revered today even after many centuries. Nefertiti has disappeared and Rahotep’s unorthodox methods of investigation have earned him the assignment, chosen by the King himself to find her before the festival inauguration of the city mere days away.

He wonders why he was called from distant Thebes from his wife and three daughters, and over more senior Medjay officers. The Medjay are similar to today’s police forces. Even before he reaches the capitol city, an attempt is made on his life. Things deteriorate once he arrives. The chief of the Medjay, Mahu, takes an immediate dislike to him. Rahotep encounters obstacles at every turn and his life is threatened on a daily basis.

That was one of the least-liked parts of the book. For half of the novel, the guy didn’t seem to get a break. In a city where everyone wants to hear news of the queen, it seems nobody wants Rahotep to find her and they will keep him from his goal, no matter the cost.

However, the imagery Drake pours into the story is very vivid and gives a magnificent and unflattering view of life in ancient Egypt, where the poor are invisible and yet treated worse. Life under the desert sun is miserable except for those privileged enough to have gardens with trees for shade. Drake brings the culture, environment and the daily rigors of scraping out an existence to life for the reader.

Drake also writes candidly of the multitude of power struggles and corruption of greedy official whose only goal was to see how much money they could hoard, regardless of who was killed or how many. It shatters the images of glitz and glamour that are sometimes used to illustrate and romanticize the lives of kings, queens and their subjects. Ancient Egypt was a dangerous place to live, even for nobility.

Rahotep is almost cliché as the lowly detective being chosen for an impossible mystery on such a grand scale that is most certainly out of his league. But he quickly becomes a hero that the reader can understand, sympathize with and cheer for. Rahotep’s faithful and loyal assistant Khety is also a wonderful character for the reader to enjoy. Together, they make an interesting duo that persevere in their search for the truth against insurmountable odds.

Simply put, Drake’s Egyptian mystery Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead is an awesome read.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

I’ve read and enjoyed Michael Crichton’s novels The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, which were very technical and meticulously researched. Since I am unfamiliar with his historical fiction, I can’t make an accurate comparison to his earlier works but Pirate Latitudes is as good a pirate novel as any out there.

Unfortunately Crichton left us too early, succumbing to cancer in November 2008 and Pirate Latitudes was published posthumously last year. In some ways, it seems uncharacteristic of him. For one reason, the writing changes about halfway through the novel. For the better. It’s as if Crichton started editing the book starting from the end and working forward but didn’t finish. The first half lacks the impact and sophistication of the second.

In Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, Crichton introduced some interesting concepts such as creating dinosaurs from DNA extracted from fossilized mosquitoes or an extremely lethal organism from outer space. That level of originality isn’t found in Pirate Latitudes.

With that said, it is a very exciting and thrilling high-seas adventure. The story is set in the Caribbean in the mid-1600’s, during the golden age of piracy. Port Royal, Jamaica was in its hey-day then as a bustling seaport, popular with pirates. It was an English outpost far from the opulence and safety of the court of King Charles, so its governor had to rely on pirates and privateers for commodities, resources and protection which came mainly from raiding Spanish settlements and ships around the Caribbean. Although England and Spain were technically at peace, citizens of the two countries still viewed each other as sworn enemies.

Captain Charles Hunt has received information that a Spanish treasure galleon is anchored at the island of Mantanceros under the protection of a fort on the eastern side. The west side of the island is mountainous, too rough and impenetrable for a ground force to carry out an attack. But Hunt believes it can be done and he recruits a strange group of experts in various fields to help with the assault. During the adventure, they encounter attacks by Spaniards, a hurricane and a mysterious creature from the deep.

Crichton doesn’t gloss over or romanticize any of the details of life aboard sailing vessels in the mid-seventeenth century. Violence, death and deplorable living conditions were the norm and Crichton pulls no punches. Pirate Latitudes is bloody, gritty and unapologetically real. It’s a great pirate story, sure to please any fan of historical novels.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tucker Peak by Archer Mayor

I was first introduced to Archer Mayor's Joe Gunther series with The Marble Mask, the eleventh novel and theone previous to Tucker Peak. I like the situation that Mayor has created with Gunther in establishing the Vermont Bureau of Investigation (VBI), a sort of red-headed stepchild of Vermont law enforcement agencies. With the VBI, he has introduced the element of conflict and the battle for legitmacy for Gunther and his contemporaries as they try to establish some respect in the hierarchy of Vermont state agencies. I am not familiar with how the different law enforcement entities are structured or how they fit into the overall scheme of Vermont but Mayor's world is exciting. The author is a town constable and he even pokes fun of his own position.

Tucker Peak, to me, was head and shoulders above The Marble Mask. More action/thriller than mystery, it had more page-turning excitement than the previous novel.

Joe Gunther and the VBI are summoned to the ski resort of Tucker Peak to help the local law enforcement investigate a rash of burglaries. Very quickly, it becomes apparent there is more going on than some delinquents looking to score some fast cash. Joe and fellow VBI-er Sammi Martens go undercover since the nature of the break-ins seems to be inside jobs. The resort is also under attack from an environmentalist group, who is benign but may harbor a more violent element.

About two weeks into their assignment a woman is seriously injured during an accident on the ski lift, one that was nearly fatal. Following that, there is a series of sabotage affecting the ski resort and setting back its plans for improvement and upgrades. The environmentalist group is blamed for the sabotage and the suspected mastermind behind the burglaries is nowhere to be found. Nobody has seen him and leads are coming up as dead-ends.

Mayor's writing style flows easily and leans more toward hard-boiled detective fiction. That's what sets his work apart from others I've read. Throughout the novel, Joe Gunther is interacting with other law enforcement people, cajoling, wheeling and dealing to get what he wants and keep VBI's nose in the clear and improve its standing in the state. He also knows how to get what he wants from the criminals, ne-er-do-wells and suspects. He's the perfect go-between among his co-workers at VBI, smoothing ruffled feathers and doling out big brotherly advice to ensure that everyone gets along and does their job. The result is a likeable character that you certainly want on your side.

As I mentioned earlier, Tucker Peak is a level up from the previous novel for action and excitement for fans of cozy whodunits to detective noir and everything in between.