The combination of the legendary ancient mystery about the disappearance of a whole army in Egypt’s western desert in 523 BC, and a modern murder mystery caught my imagination. So I was attracted to reading The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman.
The Lost Army of Cambyses is his first book, featuring Inspector Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police. It is an action packed adventure story, an easy escapist read, although the ancient mystery element definitely plays second fiddle to the modern murder mystery, with a terrorist plot thrown in the mix.
I enjoyed it. It began well, in Cairo, September 2000, where a mutilated corpse is washed up on the banks of the Nile at Luxor, an antiques dealer is savagely murdered in Cairo, and an eminent British archaeologist is found dead at the ancient necropolis of Saqqara. But as I read on I was less convinced.
Where the book came alive for me was through the character of Yusuf Khalifa, and especially the historical/archaeological aspects of the book highlighted in his meetings with his old teacher and mentor, Professor al-Habibi at Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Khalifa had wanted to be an archaeologist, but circumstances had meant he’d been unable to complete his studies and he had joined the police force. However he had remained fascinated by the history of his country:
He remembered as a child standing on the roof of their house watching the sunrise over the pyramids. Other children had taken the monuments for granted, but not Khalifa. For him there had always been something magical about them, great triangles looming through the morning mist, doorways to a different time and world. Growing up beside them had given him an insatiable desire to learn more about the past.
… There was something mystical about it, something glittering, a chain of gold stretching all the way back to the dawn of time. (pages 100 – 102)
The other characters were less convincing, becoming stereotypical particularly the ‘bad’ characters, and the violence was a little too violent for my liking. But it still managed to keep me hooked and wanting to know how it would end.
I’d like to read more of Paul Sussman’s books – I much preferred his second book, The Last Secret of the Temple. I’ve yet to read the third book featuring Inspector Khalifa, The Labyrinth of Osiris. More details of his books are on Paul Sussman’s website, which is now being updated by his wife after Paul died very suddenly from a ruptured aneurysm in May 2012.