With time running out on his contract to decode an ancient Egyptian tablet, an obsessed scholar is seduced and seemingly abandoned by others with equal but less pure interest in the deep past.
Bondurant’s debut entry in the growing genre of academic crypto-thrillers considers the real-life Stela of Paser, an Egyptian relic held by the British Museum (and viewed there by the author). Cracked in two and missing critical pieces, the Stela has mystified scholars with its internal suggestion that its hieroglyphics, which can be read in two directions like some sort of early New York Times Sunday teaser, may have a third message for those clever enough to decode it. If anyone in the small and decidedly weird world of Egyptology is able to tease out the hidden meaning, it would have to be Walter Rothschild, an American scholar in his 40s whose facility with languages, monstrously huge intellect, and encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Egypt has led him to abandon his family for a life of nearly monastic scholarship in the deserts and museum basements where his passions lie. But the Stela has him stumped. With little time left to solve the riddle before being kicked out of his ratty but free digs in Bloomsbury, Rothschild lets himself be distracted by a friend who drags him to a druggy debauch. There, he’s snagged by a pretty young thing who is so fascinated by his description of his work that she insists on being taken to his laboratory, where she slips into nearby historic duds, has spectacular but rather creepy sex with Walter, and makes off with a priceless bit of papyrus. To recover the purloined paper, Walter enlists the help of an attractive Sorbonne scholar in the employ of the National Library and follows leads all the way to Cambridge, where a rich madman has enlisted the assistance of murderous professional wrestlers in his search for sublime, ancient, divine experience. Then it’s back to London for a lot of boff, bang, and pow.
Archaeology outshines the action.