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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Mask of Atreus by A.J. Hartley

September 1, 2006

Berkley Books, New York
April 2006 (pb)

The Mask of Atreus is a debut thriller by author A.J. Hartley, and it demonstrates all the strengths and weaknesses of an initial effort.  The prose is crisp, the major characters engaging, and the plot – at least in the first three-quarters of the novel—moves along at a fast but not feverish pace.  If there’s a weakness, it’s one of plotting that takes the reader in one direction (or misdirection) and then abruptly takes him or her in a completely different path to the plots denouement.  The problem is that the misdirected plot is more fascinating in many ways than the real plot!

Deborah Miller is a tall, almost gawky (we are told) curator of the Druid Hill Museum in Atlanta, an eclectic natural history museum that is the beloved creation of Richard Dixon, an aging philanthropist and self-styled dilettante, who is both a mentor and father figure to Deborah.  It is understood that upon Richard’s retirement, Deborah will succeed to the directorship of the museum, which will be for her a dream come true.

The dream becomes a nightmare when Deborah is summoned to the museum in the middle of the night following a successful fundraising event.  The mysterious voice on a late night phone call hints of a “body,” which is an apparent reference to Richard Dixon’s brutally assaulted corpse found in a hidden chamber in the museum.  The plot moves ahead at a pace that hints at the darkest possible motives for the murder and an answer that lies in the mythic past of Mycenaean kings and ancient Greek poets.  Richard’s last written word was “Atreus,” and this clue, plus a deadly attack against Deborah on the freeways of Atlanta, the growing suspicion that an investigating police officer may not in fact be a cop at all, and a website visited by Richard shortly before his death that shows the image of a Mycenaean death mask under the file name of “Atreus,” convinces Deborah to flee to Athens to find the answers to her friend’s death.

The plotting twists and turns as Deborah slowly tumbles to the conclusion that a valuable artifact has been stolen from the secret room at Druid Hill and that the answer to the mystery surrounding Richard’s death, the attacks on her person and the seemingly unconnected death of an elderly former Soviet border guard near the scene of Richard’s murder lies, not in the quasi-mythic era of the Trojan War, but in the 19th Century explorations of famed archaeological entrepreneur, Heinrich Schliemann.  Or does it?

This is not a great debut novel, but it shows flashes of style and plotting that makes me hope there will be more novels to come.  His academic background in literature and his avocational interests in classical archaeology are evident in his writing, and there should be good things to come.  The Mask of Atreus is a good airport read—perhaps A.J. Hartley’s next effort will be a bit more substantial.

Two trowels for this debut effort.