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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Cities of the Dead by Michael Paine

July 1, 2003

Charter Books, New York
1988 (pb)

Last month’s review was of Tom Holland’s The Sleeper in the Sands, in which Howard Carter, the real life discover of Tut-ank-Amen’s tomb, is the protagonist in a supernatural thriller that seeks to explain the genesis of the “mummy’s curse.” This month’s review is of Michael Paine’s Cities of the Dead, in which Howard Carter is the protagonist in a supernatural thriller that seeks to explain many of ancient Egypt’s other mysteries, including the “real” reason for mummification, as well as the secret of Christ’s ability to raise the dead! Paine comes very close to pulling it off in a brief (246 pages) novel that is both entertaining and evocative of early 20th Century Egypt.

It is obvious that Howard Carter is a wonderful model for the low-key, bookish yet savvy hero of fictional archaeology. His trials and tribulations as an archaeological functionary in the shadowy world of Egyptian antiquities and his eventual triumph as the discoverer of Tut’s tomb, provide ample grist for the mill of archaeological potboilers—his, in a sense, Indiana Jones without the bullwhip.

Cities of the Dead takes place at about the same time as Holland’s Sleeper in the Sands. Carter has been cashiered from the Antiquities Service, A British bureaucracy presided over by the imperious Gaston Maspero, for antagonizing some boorish tourists from the Continent. To make ends meet, he agrees to guide a young idealistic American—Henry Larrimer of the “Pittsburgh Larrimers”—who ostensibly wishes to conduct a photographic survey of the ruins of ancient Egypt. Along the way, Carter finds himself teetering on the edge of madness as he contends with tomb raiders, German proto-Nazis, nuns who seem quite un-beatific in their behavior, and caches of mummified children, who have apparently suffered horrible deaths—and not very long ago!

This is an entertaining supernatural thriller—not as dense in the myth and history of ancient Egypt as Tom Holland’s Howard Carter adventure—but well worth a read if you can find a copy in a used book store or off the “new and used” link at Amazon.com.