Secrets of the Dead

Written by Murray Bailey — This is the second of Murray Bailey’s crime thrillers to follow the Egyptian adventures of British archaeologist Alex MacLure, and it’s clear the author knows his subject. I’d compare it to reading highly technical sci-fi. You either try to understand every detail or skim along on the surface trusting the author knows his business and get on with the story.

Secrets of the Dead begins, not in Egypt, but in Atlanta, Georgia, where a cache of bodies has been found, eight in all. The victims were buried in a crawl space under The Church of the Risen Christ. FBI agent Charlie Rebb and her annoying partner Peter Zhang are immediately brought into the investigation because she’d worked a previous serial killer case in which the eight victims were murdered in the same manner as those under the church. They bear a mysterious mark loosely linked to a local tattoo artist who appears to have fled the country.

Alex MacLure’s research is under way in the town established by Pharoah Akhenaten and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. Ancient secrets hide in the artifacts of the period, and MacLure hopes to reveal them. While he has the full support of his romantic partner Vanessa, he is not so trusting of his shifty research assistant.  

Alex receives a message from a stranger claiming he’s uncovered a vitally important secret that has put his life in danger and asks Alex to meet him in Cairo. Alex must follow a rather obscure trail of breadcrumbs to find the man. When he enters the open door of the apartment, he finds not an informant, but a dead body. Hard on Alex’s heels are the police, and an uncomfortable time in an Egyptian jail ensues. Bailey’s vivid description of jail conditions are enough to make you not risk even a jaywalking ticket in Cairo.

Meanwhile, Charlie and the US authorities are trying to figure out the connection among the bodies they’ve found and the meaning of the strange symbol that appears on some of them. It’s variously interpreted, and when a corpse is discovered at an Egyptian temple with the same mark, Charlie receives approval for a short stay in Egypt to work with the Cairo police and try to sort things out. Ongoing investigations in the United States reveal even more bodies that share this strange sign.

Clearly the two stories are becoming intertwined. We see occasional messages from the point of view of the killer and his master – unnecessary in my opinion – and another shadowy group is on the same trail.

Bailey intersperses the modern narratives with the story of Yanhamu, an official from 1315 BCE who became the Pharoah’s Keeper of Secrets. He was given the charge of finding one particular secret, that of everlasting life. His search is the more urgent because his wife will not be returned to him unless he finds it. Before the modern story ends, MacLure will be on an equally desperate quest to find that same secret in order to save Vanessa from a group of religious fanatics.

This now three-pronged story is full of incident. Bailey’s writing moves the action along smoothly, with only an occasional logical gap, and his authentic passion for this fascinating history shines through. The story of Yanhamu, based on a real-life character, adds richness to the narrative. He conveys a bit of a sense of Cairo, but as the story moves around the country, there isn’t the opportunity to linger on a particular setting.

While this crime thriller won’t leave you with a clear understanding of ancient Egypt, it provides a complex adventure that involves the historical, cultural, and religious obsessions that take hold of people through the ages. A strong contender for your summer beach bag, it’s the kind of book you don’t want to have to think about too much. That’s partly because Bailey doesn’t give you much help. The ancient Egyptians’ complicated history spans more time than has elapsed since AD 1. The culture produced numerous archaeological sites and many gods who evolved over time. The map and schematic of the Great Pyramid that Bailey provides are a step in the right direction. A glossary, perhaps a timeline, would be equally welcome.

Like the sound of this? Try Annamaria Alfieri’s The Idol of Mombasa or Elly Griffiths’  The Stone Circle.

Heritage Books
Print/Kindle
£7.99

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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