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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Moses Virus by Jack Hyland

November 1, 2014

Taylor Trade Publishing:  Lanham, MD
2014 (HC)

First-time fiction author Jack Hyland’s The Moses Virus starts out with a bang and a tantalizing plotline.  As a trustee of the American Academy of Rome, New York University professor of forensic archaeology Tom Stewart is in the Eternal City for the organization’s semi-annual administrative meeting.  On a beautiful early morning he sets out from his apartment to visit an archaeological dig in the Roman Forum of the Palatine Hill.  The excavation is sponsored by the American Academy, funded in large part by Belagri, a multinational agribusiness, and is being conducted by Bryn Mawr’s Robert (Doc) Brown and his internationally diverse crew.  They are excavating an underground passage which Brown believes will lead to Nero’s imperial palace, the domus aurea—the golden house.  Nero’s palace, which covered three of Rome’s seven hills, was lost for nearly 2,000 years as it was covered and built over by succeeding emperors.  Tom arrives on the site just as the entry stone is removed and Doc Brown and his grad assistant Eric Bowen prepare to explore the passageway, connected via two-way radio with the crew left outside.  After a brief period of communication from within, there is a long period of silence.  Another grad student enters the passage, equipped with a dust mask.  He stumbles back out minutes later, barely able to explain that Brown and Eric Bowen are both dead—their twisted bodies and grimacing faces betraying signs of horribly painful deaths.

What follows is a quest undertaken by Tom Stewart and the fetchingly beautiful Alexandra Cellini, a graduate student crew member from the University of Rome, to discover the cause of the horrible deaths of the two archaeologists.   They are helped along the way by an aged priest, whose tales of Vatican intrigue expose a conspiracy that goes back to the days of the Nazi occupation of Rome, and much further back than that—to the days of Moses and the ten plagues visited upon Egypt.  But the immediate threats to Tom and Alexandra come from a much more contemporary source—the giant agricultural conglomerate, Belagri—and its threat to unleash an ancient pandemic upon an unsuspecting world.  The premise of The Moses Virus is interesting and at times even thought-provoking, but the stilted narrative style and the nearly one-dimensional portrayal of the main characters—both protagonists and antagonists—detracted from what could have been an entertaining yarn.  Mr. Hyland obviously loves Rome and knows the American Academy well—he was, in fact, a trustee of that organization—but it would have served the novel better had he painted a more compelling narrative picture of that extraordinary city.  He cleverly worked into his plot a somewhat fictionalized portrayal of Lily Ross Taylor, one of the first women to be a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome in 1917 and some 35 years later was led the Classical School of the American Academy.  Lily Ross Taylor could be the heroine of a World War II spy thriller in that from 1943 to 1944 she was the principal social science analyst for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to today’s CIA.

The conclusion of The Moses Virus hints at a sequel and if the author can liven up his prose style a bit, breathe some more life into his admittedly engaging protagonists and maintain imaginative story lines, I would look forward to a next installment of Tom Stewart’s adventures.  But he must never repeat the kind of factual error he commits when he has one of his characters identify the Maya as the builders of Machu Picchu!

Two trowels for The Moses Virus.