Self-published: Middletown, DE
This is the third volume of the “Masked Man of Cairo” series penned by author McLachlan. The “masked man” refers to the series main protagonist (whether hero or anti-hero is left up to the reader), Sir Augustus Wall, a badly wounded veteran of the Great War, who has established himself as one Cairo’s premier dealers in antiquities. Wall’s wounds have not only left half his face a nightmare of scars (think Phantom of the Opera) but his psyche has been equally scarred, leaving him subject to the horrors of shell shock (think modern-day PTSD). Nonetheless, despite these limitations, his antiquities business thrives and the Commandant of the Cairo Police, Sir Thomas Russell Pasha, depends upon him for a bit of irregular detective work from time to time.
The cast of major characters is rounded out by Sir Augustus’ assistant, Egyptologist Moustafa Ghani El Souwaim, and street urchin Faisal, who is able to navigate the by-ways and back alleys of Cairo in ways no foreigner could hope to do.
It is 1919 and Egypt—especially Cairo—is a caldron seething with unrest as even the faithful Moustafa bitterly resents British colonial rule. And, in fact, Egypt is only a couple of years away from freeing itself from British rule—although not British influence. That freedom would not take place for several more decades.
The plot unfolds as Sir Augustus is attending a lecture given by Oxford Egyptologist Dr. Thornton Harrell at the Geographical Association of Egypt. His excavations of a Greco-Roman tomb near the Temple of Alexander in the Western Desert’s Bahariya Oasis. Of the 82 mummies unearthed in the tomb, twelve were gilded in gold on their heads and chests. This departure from the usual Greco-Roman style brightly painted plaster masks on mummies was a mystery that still needed solving.
As Harrell finishes his presentation, he suddenly collapses on stage and an intruder is seen escaping through the backdrop curtains. The famed archaeologist has been murdered, the victim of a blow-dart attack. By chance, the wily Faisal was hanging about the lecture hall, looking out for the main chance, when he saw the face of the fleeing assassin.
The Commandant of Police, Sir Thomas, sought out Wall’s help the next day, while briefing him that the police had been investigating the leadership of the Geographical Association on suspicion of embezzlement. Fraudulent or phantom archaeology projects were suspected and while Dr. Harrell’s Bahariya dig was legitimately funded by the Association, he had hinted his suspicions to the police and was very likely murdered before he could provide any documented testimony. The investigations undertaken by Sir Augustus, Moustafa and Faisal lead them to an interesting conclusion: the killing of Dr. Harrell had nothing to do with the embezzlement plots within the Geographical Association of Egypt, but rather pointed to answers that could only be found in the Western Desert and Bahariya Oasis, including the identity of the Harrell’s killer.
The caravan journey west proves to be an arduous ten-day journey, complicated by a fierce sandstorm that results in Sir Augustus losing the supply of opium he relies upon to escape the night terrors of his days in the trenches of war. The withdrawal from the narcotic nearly kills him and his delirium nearly drives a wedge between him and his faithful companions, Moustafa and Faisal.
The long camel caravan journey finally brings them to the Bahariya Oasis and the small British military camp that is under threat from the Senussi tribe of Bedouin, who, since the mid- 19th century had struggled to rid North Africa of European domination and influence. The intrepid trio and their new-found allies at the British garrison soon learn that archaeology had little to do with Professor Harrell’s assassination—geo-politics was the driving agent and it was about to put Sir Augustus and his friends in grave peril.
The author has not only created a trio of interesting and complex characters in the persons of Sir Augustus, Moustafa and Faisal, but also a believable cast of secondary characters, a number of whom were real figures in North African history at this time. He also re-creates a compelling picture of Cairo and the Western Desert at this time in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Unfortunately, the critical element of the plot—the Senussi uprising—did not live up to this reader’s expectations. Sir Augustus and his heroic friends needed a more substantial antagonist to follow on the killing of an eminent archaeologist such as Professor Thornton Harrell. And the “golden Greeks” needed to play a larger role in the plot!
Two trowels for The Case of the Golden Greeks.