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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

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My name:  Brian Martin

Sphinx by Robin Cook

Sphinx - Robin Cook

Perhaps this was Robin Cook's thinking:

"Sphinx" = Egypt
"Sphinx" = riddle
"Riddle" = mystery
Sphinx = mystery in Egypt.

In any case, no sphinx figures into the plot of this novel, but it is an Egyptological mystery/thriller.

Young, beautiful Egyptologist Erica Baron, while on a sort of working vacation in Egypt, unexpectedly gets taken into the confidence of a black market antiquities dealer. The dealer shows her a fabulous statue of Seti I, a New Kingdom Pharoah who ruled shortly after Tutankhamen, that doesn't officially exist and which hints at still more treasure from an undiscovered tomb. When the dealer is murdered and the statue stolen, Erica finds herself drawn into a world of black market intrigue and treasure hunting.

This is Cook's followup to Coma. For both, he chooses a female protagonist, then undercuts her authority by hinging the plot on her physical beauty. In Coma, the heroine was only able to pursue her research into strange coma cases at a Boston hospital because her boss had the hots for her. Here, Erica remains alive not because of her decision-making skills (extremely poor), fighting prowess (she has none), or her academic credentials (which actually make her more of a threat), but simply because not one but two men find her irresistibly attractive. (The total number is, in fact, four, but one of the other two men wants her to leave Egypt and the other is merely a lackey.) And so, with each new turn of the plot, instead of heading toward increasing excitement, the story explores new avenues of absurdity.

The lure is Ancient Egypt, but this isn't like a Dan Brown novel, in which art and architecture take center stage. For Cook, its all merely an exotic backdrop for...well, Cook can't really decide what its for. Romance? The black market? A treasure hunt? It's all three. Sphinx is a prime example of the pejorative definition of "bestseller": shallow, titillating, and superficially exciting.

The titillating part (this was published in 1979) is Erica herself, and her romantic relationships. You might think that because this is set in the land of the great pyramids, the fact that Erica finds herself at the apex of a romantic triangle is thematically or metaphorically significant, but I can tell you that Cook doesn't operate on that level. No, he sticks to the basics, giving Erica a choice between a tough ladies man and a sensitive intellectual. Almost forgotten in all this is her doctor boyfriend, who gets to say what we're all thinking -- darling, you're an Egyptologist, not a super-spy -- but who then proves what an ass he is by denigrating Erica's professional aspirations. During the course of the book, Erica has an opportunity to sleep with all three, but I'm thinking you only need one guess to figure out which one she picks.

Cooks opens the book with a quotation from Herodotus: "Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works that defy description." Because this novel barely describes any of these wonders (real or imagined), I will close this review with another quotation, this one from one of Herodotus' critics, substituting only the proper name: "Though we cannot entirely rule out the possibility of Cook having been in Egypt, it must be said that his narrative bears little witness to it."