The Pharaoh’s Butler Did It : Agatha Christie – “Death Comes as The End”

Agatha Christie engineered nearly every mind-blowing mystery twist conceivable (except, to her credit, “the butler did it” and “it was all a dream”). She also casually invented a sub-genre with 1944’s “Death Comes as the End”: the historical whodunit. In a one-off experiment, Christie transposed a plot typical of her cozies into Ancient Egypt. English vicarage or Egyptian temple: murder is murder.

ABOVE: The Egyptian advances in eye make-up still baffle historians. Taught by aliens? Who can tell!

“Death Comes as the End” takes place in Thebes near 2000 B.C, not too long after the era of William Golding’s “The Scorpion King,” to which it is very comparable, even (surprisingly) in style. Christie’s novel contains no incest, but other than that it’s about as accurate historically as Golding’s… and far more enjoyable.

Ok, so William was a wordsmith and Agatha wasn’t. The finer aspect aspects of story-telling are secondary to page-turning. If the page doesn’t get turned, the brightest turns of phrase stay locked in an unraided tomb.  The following early passage from “Death Comes As the End” may not exactly sparkle:

“She thought again, gratefully: “I have come home.” Nothing was changed here. All was as it had been. Here life was constant, unchanging. The framework, the essence of things, was unchanged.”

That’s FIVE reiterations of the exact same concept. It would get a C- in a creative writing class (appended, a red angry comment: “REDUNDANT!”) But after an initial murder-free slog with questionable passages like the one quoted above, “Death Comes as the End” picks up, the bodies pile up pyramid-high, and you’ll sit there turning pages because the fact is that the woman knew story-telling better than just about anybody.

Christie was fond of digging up graves in ways both literal and literary: in fact she met her second husband, noted archaeologist Max Mallowan, during a Mesopotamian dig. Those times spent with shovels among ancient ruins served the Dame well. See also “Death on the Nile,” “Death in Mesopotamia,” and “Appointment with Death” (set in Jerusalem.)

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!

Nine for the Price of One : David Mitchell – “Ghostwritten”

“We’re all ghostwriters, my boy. And it’s not just our
memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.” – David Mitchell, “Ghostwritten”

ABOVE: Do not blame him for the “Cloud Atlas” movie.

I used to listen to the Bat Segundo Show, one of the finest literary podcasts in all of podcast-dom, (est. 2001). So I kind of double-blinked while reading David Mitchell’s 1999 novel, “Ghostwritten”- and stumbling upon a Bat Segundo Show within its pages.

Does Mitchell, aside from his literary talents, have the ability to prophecy the unlikely names of future podcasters?!? The far-less-magical explanation is that the real-life “Bat Segundo” adopted the moniker of the unreal-life DJ in a blatant attempt to attract Mitchell as a guest to the podcast. (The ploy worked.)

ABOVE: That Mitchell (-Webb) look

“Ghostwritten,” a novel-in-9-novellas, is one of the few hyped-and-toasted debuts of our time that actually did herald a serious and serial writer. It’s a bold effort, and it was bolder then: At that  time every whiny writer’s first novel was supposed to be about a whiny writer struggling with his first novel.

I noticed “Ghostwriten” in 2000 and knew I would get to it- eventually. It’s been 14 years of watching the Mitchell shelf at the library get thicker, and here we are. While he’s got another fan now, and I’m bound to read everything Mitchell has put out shortly, in the end the thematic diffuseness of “Ghostwritten” left me dissatisfied. Mitchell aims to prove that he can write NINE exciting, imaginative novels, in 9 disparate moods and voices; that he can sprawl like Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo; that he can do London like Nick Hornby and Tokyo like Murakami; that he can thrown in super-intelligent AI like Philip K. Dick; that he can slide into Irish accents- and Russian- and Mongolian.

He doesn’t quite pull ALL of those things off (WHO COULD?) but, my God, HE TRIES! How admirable is that?

RATING: COOL! but a gutsy attempt at a MASTERPIECE!!!

Talk Like an Egyptian, Please : William Golding – “The Scorpion God”

If Philip K. Dick’s “Dr. Futurity” is about an alien land where incestuous eugenics are the norm and an intrusive white man will change everything – so is William Golding’s novella, “The Scorpion God.”

ABOVE : So, Lord of the Scorpions…

Golding is once again in the “strange” mode of “The Inheritors,” describing an ancient culture through its own disorienting perceptions, except that instead of Neanderthals, “The Scorpion God” takes a look at the behavior of Pre-Pharaonic Egyptians… and the unexpected rise of what may be the first Pharaoh, triumphant over the old order.

Great House is God and Father to his people; upon his eventual passing from the Now into Eternal Life, all his children will gladly accompany him in mass suicide; after all, he makes the Nile rise and holds the sky up every day, so they owe him servitude in the Land of the Dead. Great House is counseled by The Head Man (enforcer of ancient dogmas) and amused by The Liar (a free-thinking pale man who has arrived from northern lands and tells unbelievable tales about rivers of water that turn white and hard as stone.)

Meanwhile, Great House’s young son hates the idea of having to hold up the sky and direct the Nile’s floods (it’s not easy being God!) He also doesn’t want to marry his sister, Pretty Flower. This mystifies the Head Man: what kind of deviant sicko doesn’t fancy his own sister? Who does the kid want to have sex with, people who aren’t even relatives? GROSS!

Golding makes too much of a point of making unnecessary “wink wink” asides like I just did above.  We get that incest is the norm, so we don’t need anyone vocalizing that. The modern irony intrudes upon Golding’s carefully wrought aesthetic. That’s not too bad; what’s worse is when historical authenticity is marred by abrupt, careless Anglicisms. When the Great House is interrupted at a game of proto-checkers, he snarls: “Do you MIND?” Elsewhere, the Head Man sighs: “Well. Oh dear. Well, well, well. Tut, tut. Bless me!” It takes you right out of Egypt. That same Head Man later offers a monologue of such eloquent psychological introspection that it’s like reading Henry James on a papyrus.

While not overly bound by Egyptological research, “The Scorpion God” hints at the rise of the real “Scorpion King,” whose Proto-Dynastic reign can boast of both early hieroglyphs and the oldest evidence of wine-making paraphernalia. (Writing and alcoholism developed at the same time in world history. What a coincidence.)

ABOVE: I believe this was a BBC adaptation of Golding’s novella. Think I saw it on “Masterpiece Theater.”

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH

Paging Dr. Spaceman – Philip K. Dick – “Dr. Futurity”

For a guy who was such a fan of doctors (and other providers of, er, powerful pharmaceutical remedies), Philip K. Dick sure loved his cigarettes. However, I need to make a correction: When writing about “Dr. Bloodmoney,” I said his characters smoked Camels. I was wrong. According to “Dr. Futurity,” in the year 2405 the cigarette brand of choice will be Lucky Strike.

ABOVE: “8 out of 10 Doctors, Conquistadors and Astronauts Agree: Lucky Strikes Take You to a Whole New World of Flavor!”

The titular “Dr. Futurity” is one Dr. Jim Parsons (not related to the actor from “The Big Bang Theory,” thankfully). Parsons is jerked out of the year 2012 into the year 2405, where an advanced society has done away with racism ( by eugenizing everyone into one big, happy, standard brown look) and with old age (by embracing the joy of death and prohibiting medicine.) Parsons, who is white and in his 30s, seems comparatively leprous and ancient.

And so you think Parsons is going to be a stranger in a strange land and walk around meditating on race or euthanasia… but PKD quickly moves on to the next three or four topics that interested him that week (speed is a hell of a drug). That’s why it’s virtually impossible to figure out from the opening chapters that at one point Sir Francis Drake will be an important character.

“Dr. Futurity” is one of PKD’s earliest novels by date of conception (the original idea goes back to 1953 or so). Its reputation is not great, with many fans considering it the worst of all his novels. I enjoyed it quite a bit, however; the obvious awkwardness of its construction makes it unpredictable. Among its many virtues, it effectively puts to rest the so-called “grandfather” paradox that wannabe time-travel “theorists” are always bringing up: “What if I traveled back in time  and killed my grandfather before he had children?” WELL, obviously, if you did that, then you wouldn’t exist, so if you exist is because you DIDN’T do that. DUH.

Also, if you’re using your time-traveling benefits to kill your poor grandfather, then you’re a DICK, and not in the awesome Philip K. way.

ABOVE : So THAT’s what was in the “Pulp Fiction” briefcase!

RATING : I find it pointless to rate individual Philip K. Dick novels. He’s a “body of work” kind of guy. They all tend to be “GOOD ENOUGH” to “GREAT!” building up to a cumulative “MASTERPIECE!!!”

A Gas : Brian K. Vaughan – “Saga” (1-18)

Worlds are at war. Space Montagues fight Space Capulets. Brutal Factions pursue a Brave-Sensitive Warrior, his Sassy-Kick-Ass Consort, and their Magical-Savior-Prophecy-Baby through the far reaches of the Galaxy. Most of Brian K. Vaughan’s self-explanatorily-titled “Saga” has been bought wholesale from a Space Opera junkyard, but Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples have buffed up the parts to launch a shiny new rocket.

ABOVE: “I came here to chew gum and kick ass. Luckily, I still have chewing gum so I think I’ll catch up on my Heinlein.”

“Saga” earns its praise by being funny, exciting, surprising, colorful, vulgar, touching. Another unqualified hit for Vaughan. ALSO, having a Lying Cat would significantly simplify most inter-personal transactions.

ABOVE: The Lying King

RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!