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from the trenches
Books: Kidnapping the Boy-King Volume 61 Number 5, September/October 2008
by Mark Rose
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Vicky Bliss, an art historian turned sleuth, is back in the latest mystery novel by Elizabeth Peters (the pen name of Egyptologist Barbara Mertz). Bliss sums up the premise of the book, The Laughter of Dead Kings, in a single line: "'King Tut?' I gasped. 'They stole King Tut?'" Murder, betrayal, and a sword fight follow as Bliss tries to find out who took Tut and why. Was it a simple mummy-napping for ransom, or something more sinister?

Thoroughly enjoyable, The Laughter of Dead Kings is a veritable souffle of a mystery novel, fast-paced yet humorous. But it also takes on serious questions about the antiquities trade and mummies as artifacts and museum exhibits.

In the book Peters draws on living Egyptologists for inspiration, sometimes humorously and sometimes to make a point. For example, her media-savvy Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities is obviously based in part on current SCA head Zahi Hawass, though he sports a pith helmet instead of a fedora. And a Berlin museum director in the book, Jan Perlmutter, defends his refusal to loan the famous bust of Nefertiti to Egypt using the same arguments that real-life museum director Dietrich Wildung does. Bliss attacks when Perlmutter suggests that Egypt is unable to look after its antiquities: "They're doing the best they can, Jan. Egypt has too much stuff. The world ought to be helping preserve that heritage, instead of wasting money on wars."

Over the course of the book, Bliss's attitude toward the mummy shifts from revulsion to sympathy. By the novel's end, she reflects, "What was I doing here? In front of the Cairo Museum at four o'clock in the morning, aiding and abetting a trio of demented Egyptologists who were piecing together a dead, dismembered king. What was Tutankhamon to me, or I to him, that I should care about him? I did care, though."

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