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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman

December 1, 2004

Thomas Dunne Books, New York
2002 (hc)

Paul Sussman’s first novel, The Lost Army of Cambyses, is simply a terrific read!  It has all the elements of a Grade A thriller a la Ludlum, Jon Land, etc., including a tough yet vulnerable heroine, a dashing hero (an archaeologist, of course), a haunted yet savvy policeman, not one but two really malevolent bad guys, a search for treasure, chase scenes, and exotic locales.  What more could one want for leisure-time reading?

The lost army referred to in the novel’s title is a briefly stated reference in Herodotus that recounts the misadventures of some 5,000 Persian soldiers sent into Egypt by the mad despot Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great, in 523 BC.  According to Herodotus, a great sand storm buried the 5,000 and no trace was ever found of them again.

The contemporary story begins with the brutal murders of an antiquities dealer in Cairo and a suspected tomb raider in Luxor; these murders are followed closely by the death, apparently by natural causes, of a British archaeologist in Saqqara.  The convoluted plot that ties these and other subsequent deaths together is then told from the perspectives of the novel’s two protagonists, Inspector Yusuf Khalife of the Luxor police and Tara Mullray, the daughter of the deceased British archaeologist in Saqqara.  Tara is joined in her search for the truth of her father’s death by her former lover and intrepid archaeologist, Daniel Lacage.  The separate trails followed by Khalifa and Tara begin to converge and point to a shadowy bin Laden-like Islamist terror master named Sayf al-Tha’r and rumors of a fabulous treasure hidden in the Theban hills.

Like many novels involving archaeologists in exotic settings, Lost Army is derivative of that best-loved archaeologist/adventurer, Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Similarities include the former lovers re-uniting in search of buried treasure, Daniel’s fear of snakes (especially a particularly nasty Black-necked Cobra), and the inclusion of an outlaw archaeologist (although Lost Army’s Dravic is thuggish whereas Raider’s Bellocq was urbane).  But these similarities are by no means distracting and Sussman writes with passion and verve as the main characters, both good and bad, race to the denouement in the Egyptian desert.  While the reader may have anticipated the literal fight to the death in the closing pages of the novel, this reader was wonderfully surprised by the ending, which was most certainly not derivative of Indiana Jones!

This is a four-trowel read, perfect for a cold winter night as the reader follows the hero and heroine over the burning sands of the Egyptian desert.