Due the end of May is the fourth title in Lynda Robinson's ever fascinating mystery series set in ancient Memphis during the reign of Tutankamen.
Lord Meren, the powerful and favored Eyes and Ears of the Pharaoh, has begun the delicate and extremely dangerous investigation of the murder years earlier of Queen Nefertiti. But a series of brutal deaths at the apparent claws of Ammut, the Eater of Souls (Walker, $21.95), proves a major distraction.
A disparate set of victims have been found with their hearts cut out and replaced with the white feather of Maat. Can these be connected to Nefertiti, whose poisoning threatens Tut, son of the living god, and his entire court? When a belligerent Hittite ambassador is slain, Egypt escalates towards war. And when Lord Meren himself is attacked, he grapples with a beast of incredible strength with the head of a crocodile, a lion's mane and hippo's body, and claws of bronze.
Meren's household also gets involved; adopted son and protégé Kysen puts his head in the lion's mouth going undercover in the brothels and pirate lairs on the Nile waterfront, his willful daughters the young and beautiful Isis and quick-witted and practical Bener both hinder and help, and in the background watch Lord Meren's personal bodyguard and police force, the feared Charioteers.
Lord Meren has the nobility and elegance of Sayer's Peter Whimsey. Where Lord Peter collects incunabula, Meren, who's a scribe as well as warrior, creates it. In power and protocol he draws comparison to Van Gulik's Judge Dee, who in ancient China served as the Right Hand of the Emperor. And as Stout's Nero Wolfe exercises his lips in and out when analyzing a case, Lord Meren juggles (a grave secret I should not have revealed).
The series should be read in order (#4 Eater of Souls is the first of a trilogy), Murder at the Place of Anubis, Murder at the God's Gate, and Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing are all available in paperback at $4.99 and $5.99. Robinson maintains a high degree of puzzle in all of them, while gradually through revelation and on-going subplots expands on the complexity of Meren's character and those characters around him. And if your Ka is not yet satisfied, there's Lee Levin's King Tut's Private Eye (St. Martin's, $21.95) and Anton Gill's trio City of the Horizon, City of Dreams, and City of the Dead (import paperbacks, $10.95 each). All take place during Tutankamen's reign (1361-1352 B.C.).
It's a bit distressing that Tut is already five years into his short reign. But on an encouraging note, when Pharoah places with great ceremony his personal protection on Lord Meren, our hero is speechless: Meren felt his features settle into a courtly mask, "Does thy majesty know what he has done? He has made me at least a dozen more enemies at court that I had before." "Better a few more enemies than a hole in your chest where your heart should be."
That should keep Lord Meren busy for a few more intrigues and adventures.
I had finished the recommended Stonekiller (late May, $22.00, Soho) by J. Robert Janes shortly before seeing the headlines: Ancient Spears Indicate Sophisticated Hunters (400,000 year old weapons found by archaeologists in Germany); and next day's paper, Tools Indicate Humans Were in Siberia Earlier Than Believed (300,000 year old stone tools found in the far north). The irony of the title also struck a note. A "stone killer" in today's argot has that cold "thousand-yard stare", but in this novel a stone killer actually uses an almond-shaped middle-Paleolithic hand ax of chipped flint.
Amid the carnage of war, common cirmes, if murder can be called such, still take place and must be investigated. Flash to Ellis Peter's One Corpse Too Many ($5.99), and recently The Monkey House ($22.00) by John Fullerton.
It's July, 1942 in Dordogne - German occupied Vichy France. Enter two experienced investigators with badges, Jean-Louis St. Cyr of the Surete' and Hermann Kohler of the Gestapo. It will prove to be one of the most distinctive and precarious partnerships in detective fiction.
Years earlier a Frenchwoman helped discover a treasure trove of Neanderthal objects and cave paintings that rival the celebrated caves of Lascaux. Now on the eve of the filming of her story she's been savagely murdered. Der Fuhrer, Goebbels, und Himmler are all delighted about the documentary for the find establishes Aryan roots (complete with swastika?) in earliest Neanderthal times. A relatively long list of characters includes the victim's abused daughter, her unstable veteran husband, a dispassionate Austrian Baron and his decadent film entourage, a mysterious archeologist listed missing in action during "that other war", and several others. The unusual duo of St. Cyr and Kohler in their search for the truth contend with resistance at every turn. To solve a murder they may have to show that the discovery is a hoax, and their prospects for survival have become extremely small.
Janes is a Canadian who has been primarily published in England. Two earlier titles in the series, Mirage and Carousel, came out in the U.S. in hardcover in '92 and '93. And Soho promises three more - Salamander, Sandman, and Mannequin. I found Stonekiller hard to follow at times (though I did read most of it while waiting in lines at Disneyworld). Any difficulties nonetheless were certainly outweighed by the book's strong protagonists and especially the fine atmospheric details - place, time, and situation.