There's something oddly calming about reading a murder mystery set in the past, and surely a big reason why that would be so is that the whole enterprise stresses continuity: not only did people kill each other in desperate and sometimes ingenious ways even in the distant past, but other people disliked that fact and worked hard (and in recognizable ways) to bring the killers to justice. And the idea of righting the balance between right and wrong largely looks the same, give or take a ritual disembowelment or two.
If that's part of the comfort, it must also be part of the allure of reading murder mysteries set in ancient Egypt - it's such a forbiddingly alien setting otherwise: strange customs, strange gods, strange preoccupations. In such a weird vanished world, a plain old murder is a welcome thing, as are the sleuths who set out to solve the crimes. The Egyptian faces half-smiling at us so serenely from behind protective glass at the Museum of Fine Arts seem almost like they wouldn't even notice a murderer in their midst - it's nice to know somebody cares.
Three somebodies, in the case of the three most popular ancient Egypt murder mystery series offered to readers in recent years. One of these three we've met here at Stevereads already: Lynda Robinson's nifty series featuring the adventures of Lord Meren, the upright and rigorously intellectual inquiry agent for teen-pharaoh Tutankhamun, a reserved and diligent man about whom one character in Robinson's second novel, Murder at the God's Gate, says, "he can smell intrigue as the hound scents the oryx." Like everyone else around the young king, Lord Meren is older and wiser than Tutankhamun, frequently prone to drop subtle bits of guidance into conversation, as when the two of them get some fun out of watching the scandalized reactions of a priest when confronted with an immense new statue of the pharaoh:
"Did you see him?" the king asked. "Did you see how red he turned when he realized how great was the size of my image?"
Meren risked a sidelong glance at the king. Tutankhamun was maintaining a regal demeanor. He stared straight ahead at the west bank, away from the eastern city and its countless temples.
"Aye, majesty. Thy image is indeed that of a living god."
Tutankhamun lifted a brow and met Meren's bland gaze.
"It was your idea too," the king said. "So don't pretend you don't enjoy his discomfort."
"But our joy must be a silent one, majesty."
We have a different pharaoh and a very different hero in Lauren Haney's The Right Hand of Amon, the first of her delightful and densely packed mysteries starring Lieutenant Bak, commander of the Medjay police in the frontier fortress of Buhen during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut. Where Lord Meren is very much a grey eminence, Lieutenant Bak is cut in much more of the recognizable action-hero mold: he's twenty-four and broad-shouldered and black-haired and, well, dreamy. In this novel, Bak is assigned to escort a statue of Amon up the Nile on a mission of mercy, and Haney wastes no time showing her skill at immersing her readers in period atmosphere - in this case, the stunning, ominous heat of Egypt:
The day was hot, sweltering. The kind of day when predators and prey alike hid among the rocks and under bushes or in the depths of the river. They hid not from each other but from the sun god Re, whose fiery breath drew the moisture from every animal and plant, from the life-giving river itself. Only man, the greatest predator of all, walked about.
Haney writes a 'classic' murder mystery, complete with intelligently handled clues, a couple of red herrings, and a climactic confrontation that's both bittersweet and action-packed. Her studly hero does far less hob-nobbing than Lord Meren - and gets his hands dirty far more often.
Striking something of a middle course is Judge Amerotke in P. C. Doherty's The Horus Killings. Amerotke teams up with Queen Hatusu, widow of the pharaoh Tuthmosis and would-be pharaoh herself, Egypt's first ruler-queen ... the two of them must solve a series of killings on the sacred precincts of Horus, and both of them suspect that might be the work of divisive elements at court itself. Amerotke, the Chief Judge of Thebes, is a "tall, severe-looking" man accustomed to dispensing absolute justice in his court, and although he has something of Lieutenant Bak's bravery (it never even occurs to him to flee when a disgruntled criminal attempts to kill him, for instance), he has much more of Lord Meren's cerebral reserve. Doherty fills the book with rich detail-work and chooses a refreshingly unfamiliar period in Egypt's vast history to lay his scene. Amerotke is sensitive to the squalor he sees around him:
They passed the grey, crowded huts which housed the workers who flocked to the outskirts of the city looking for work and cheap food. An arid, smelly place. A few acacias and sycamores provided some shade; the ground was peppered with piles of refuse, the field of fierce battles waged by dogs, hawks, and vultures. Men were at work rebuilding their frail brick houses damaged by a recent storm. Idlers stood along the path staring with swollen eyes or smiling in a display of teeth spoiled by bad flour and rotting meat.
Even while he's grateful for the freedom from squalor that his standing allows him:
The gate swung open. Amerotke stepped into his own private paradise, feeling guilty at the poverty he had just glimpsed. This was his oasis of calm. Apple, almond, fig and pomegranate grew here in glorious profusion. Sunbaked plots full of onions, cucumbers, aubergines and other vegetables gave off a pleasant savoury odour.
All three books are passionately, exhaustively researched, and all three give off that delicious vibe of a well-constructed and well-executed whodunit. As far as mystery's histories go, readers could do far, far worse.