The Egyptologist: A Novel

by Arthur Phillips

Hardcover, 2004



Random House (2004), Edition: First Edition, 400 pages


King Tut's tomb has been discovered, but Egyptologist Ralph Trilipush finds himself in a far less spectacular position when he stakes everything on a scrap of hieroglyphic pornography. Halfway around the world, an Australian detective sets off on a globetrotting quest to find a murderer. These events, seemingly unrelated, are about to collide in a spectacular fashion.

Media reviews

The cast of Arthur Phillips's comic novel "The Egyptologist" could have come from one of those deliciously campy old Hollywood mummy movies.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Meredy
In addition to numerous conventional virtues, what makes this book extraordinary is its use of not one but two unreliable narrators. Each of them misapprehends events in a different way, and yet through their misguided narratives the author allows the reader to glimpse the truth.

It's almost as if we were looking through two panes of glass, each with an amorphous shape painted on it, and discerning a figure only in the area where the two overlap--imperceptible if you see just one of them (and also if you fail to look at the reflections in the shiny surfaces). A remarkable achievement.… (more)
LibraryThing member Oregonreader
This is an epistolary novel, told in a series of letters from several of the main characters. Those from Ralph Trilipush, Oxford grad, Harvard lecturer, archeologist, date from 1922 during a trip to Egypt to hunt for the tomb of Atum-hadu, whose existence most experts doubt. The letters reveal a man so confident that he is always right and destined for greatness that he filters everything through that belief and you quickly get the sense that there is only a grain of truth in his letters. His constant posturing and self-justification are very funny and cleverly written. The remaining bulk of the letters are from an Australian private detective who stumbles across Trilipush's trail and sets out to find him. Phillips is very clever to use this format to tell his story as the letters reveal the characters so clearly. It quickly becomes obvious that the letters are all self-serving and the truth somewhere in between. As the story progresses, you get a sense that it is headed for disaster. The ending does not disappoint. This is a very clever, beautifully written book.… (more)
LibraryThing member jburlinson
This book started like a house afire. Unfortunately, the house was made of straw, so it burned out after the first 50-70 pages and all that was left were some smoldering embers and and .loose pieces of gold & silver left over from incinerated costume jewelry.
LibraryThing member lectrix
I'm still surprised that not only did I start this novel, but I could scarcely put it down until I'd finished it. With its unreliable narrators, epistolary format and absence of sympathetic characters, it seemed to be precisely the kind of too-clever-by-half literary novel that I can't abide.


Ralph Trilipush is a British archaeologist obsessed with a little-known pharaoh whose erotic writings he has translated. He's excavating in Egypt at the same time as Howard Carter, of whom he's madly jealous. Trilipush's background and credentials are obscure, his financial backing unreliable and possibly unsavoury. There are murders, conspiracy and shady dealings, sometimes comically inept; nothing and no one are what they appear to be. Suspicions are aroused and someone sends a private detective to put a tail on Trilipush, who has by now discovered the location of his shadowy pharaoh's tomb near to (but just out of sight of) where Carter is about to unearth the treasure of Tutankhamun.

The story is told entirely in extracts from Trilipush's journals, contemporary letters and telegrams, interspersed with much later correspondence that the now-aged detective sends to a young relation of the aforesaid fiancee. These elements are so skilfully spliced together and allow the characters to unwittingly reveal so much about themselves that this reader, at any rate, was immediately hooked and unable to let go until the shocking denouement. And not even then, if truth be told.

If had to say what The Egyptologist is about, I'd go for ambition, greed, self-delusion and the quest for immortality at any cost. It's a black comedy laced with subtle jokes (some of which I suspect I may have missed on a first reading), and like the best comedy, it has tragedy and pathos at its heart.

Murder-mystery fans might be disappointed to guess whodunnit quite early on (it's the how and why that are truly intriguing and unexpected), and Egyptophiles might regret that the novel doesn't time-travel, but for me this was a hugely enjoyable and satisfying read.
Sarah Cuthbertson
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LibraryThing member LukeS
In "The Egyptologist" Arthur Phillips gives us a murder mystery that features an Australian con man (named Caldwell, posing as Trilibush), a foppish Brit who "read the Pharoahs" at Oxford, and a dim Aussie detective who'd like to sell his idea of this story to Hollywood. All this is set in the exciting backdrop of Egypt in the '20s, with the world agog with the King Tut discoveries.

Principal among Caldwell/Trilipush's ambitions is the hand of Margaret Finneran, daughter of mobster money, but he believes he has to find a real Egyptian treasure to make himself worthy. His belief in this treasure is the driving energy behind the narrative. Too bad the belief is based on poor information, incomplete evidence, and outright falsehoods. In the end our protaganist's belief becomes maniacal: he comes to equate himself with his apocryphal Egyptian king, and kills himself. He leaves in his wake, confusion, uncertainty, murder, blackmail, and a dead gangster.

Phillips is very generous with his readers. We learn in plenty of time of Caldwell/Trilibush's delusion; there is wonderful dialogue - witty, and spot-on with the vernacular of the times. We have a complete understanding of story when the two men die at the end - the dream of discovery, the mystery of the Egyptian king who never existed, and the mayhem our would-be social climber caused.

This book has a wondeful cast of characters, an exciting climax, and takes us on a trip to a far-away land and time. I recommend it - take and enjoy.
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
Totally unexpected and one of the most memorable books I've read. The story is written like a spiral, bringing the reader closer and closer to the truth about the main character, who believes he has found a pharaoh's tomb to rival Tut's (being excavated nearby by his rival Howard Carter). Wild, horrifying, vivid. How I wish I could find something this wonderful to read even once a year!… (more)
LibraryThing member shanarra
I absolutely hated this book .. I felt like I needed to wash my brain after I'd finished reading it (hoping against hope that the ending would make the torture of reading it worthwhile).
LibraryThing member Wilhelminawren
A rather original twist on a murder mystery set in the 1920s; the heyday of archaeology in Middle East. The narrative is told from different point of views, from the british gentleman turned archaeologist, to his rich American spoiled fiancee, to an Australian private eye investigating a missing person from his native home of down under. Things are not what they appear to be either. The Author has done his homework so a thread of authentic history and archaeological methods reinforce the story, so you are not asked to suspend belief for the sake of this zany but plausible surprise ending. Good reading for 4 seasons!… (more)
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
I can't believe all of the naysayers who've reviewed & totally panned this book. I've seen this book called "boring," "tedious," "stuffy," but I have to say that I disagree with the best of them. I genuinely loved every second of this book and rather than devouring it all at once like I normally do, I read this over several days, slowly, so I wouldn't miss a thing.

I don't even know how to begin with my thoughts on this book. So I'll start with the basics. Would I recommend this book? Yes. There is a mystery, but it is quite easy to figure out pretty much at the beginning, so if you're looking for this book to get a mystery reading appetite whetted, this probably wouldn't be your first choice. If you are looking for something unique in the literature realm, then definitely I would recommend this book to you.

Told in an epistolary format, Phillips writes from the points of view of the "unreliable narrator". Set in the early 1920s, chief is the voice of Ralph Trilipush, Egyptian explorer in the early 1920s, in Egypt at the same time as Howard Carter when he makes his discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb. Very early on the reader comes to realize Trilipush's self-aggrandizement (is that a word?), from little hints from his journal entries, especially when he addresses "Reader," in his journal. So right away you can figure that anything coming from Trilipush must be suspect. Trilipush works at Harvard as an associate adjunct professor, and has found backing for an excavation to try to locate the tomb of King Atum-hadu. He meets Margaret Finneran, who just happens to be an heiress to the Finneran's Finery fortune; her father decides to get together a group of investors for the project and send Trilipush on his way to Egypt after he assures them of wealth and riches beyond their wildest dreams. Things go well for young Trilipush, until an Australian detective, Ferrell, comes to Boston as part of his travels to track down information regarding one Paul Caldwell, an illegimate heir of the Davies Ale fortune. It turns out that Caldwell was a soldier in Turkey at Gallipoli, and wandered off after WWI to Egypt and along with Hugo Marlowe another WWI soldier, was never heard from again. Ferrell's travels have led him to friends of Marlowe, notably, one Ralph Trilipush. Ferrell's perceptions are mediated mainly through the passage of time and memory; he is looking back at his investigations some thirty years later, and is also writing them down in letters, so what he has to say must also be looked at closely. Also, Ferrell tends to gain clients at every turn through information he offers to various people involved in his search -- adding another level of scrutiny to how he goes about his work and what conclusions he comes to.

You really should go and read a synopsis of this work; I can't really begin to do it justice. The book is probably one of the best I've read this year, suffused with irony and dark humor. A VERY intelligent piece of writing and I absolutely cannot wait to see what this author does next. I loved his Prague, and this one was even better.

side note: if you pair this one with Nabokov's Pale Fire, you'll do yourself a favor.
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LibraryThing member picardyrose
Everyone, including me, called it brilliant. Can't say more.
LibraryThing member probably
Read this at Julie's suggestion - she lent me the book. It seemed to drag a little in the middle 3/5ths. It reminded me of Wicked, and also of Ronald Merrick in the Jewel in the Crown. Deranged auto-didact is the main character. Interesting comments on death and immortality, as the bookcover said. As usual, I was looking for the hero to get away.

It did bother me that the guy was absolutely looney by the end. He had made a lot of progress from his roots, and from the time he was in the service until his death was not that long. Why would he go so wrong in that short a time?
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LibraryThing member podperson
Kind of weird novel set in Egypt at the time of Howard Carter. A man commits an odd sort of fraud only t oend it very badly indeed.
LibraryThing member boltgirl
This mystery centers on the disappearance of a bumbling archaeologist from 1920s Egypt while on the trail of a lost king who may or may not have existed. Told from the viewpoints of several different characters via their correspondence, it follows the Egyptologist, his fiancee, his financiers, the private eye hired to find him, and the long-lost bastard son of an eccentric Englishman between Australia and Africa.

The story starts a bit slowly but picks up after what only feels like several hundred pages--holy cow, but they used tiny fonts on this book--as the letters from the hapless Ralph Trilipush reveal him as inexorably as his sketch maps reveal the nature of his king Atum-hadu, by turns haughty, self-absorbed, amusing, absurd, pitiable, and, finally, tragic.

It drew me in. I'm glad I stuck it out.
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LibraryThing member KatieLovett
I only read literary fiction on occasion, but I love all things Egyptian, so I decided to pick this up. And from the moment I read the first line to the moment I read the last, the story held me captive. Even days later I couldn't shake it from my head. I confess that I saw the end coming, but far from ruining the story for me, it only enhanced its effect. The Egyptologist is a thought-provoking picture of obssession and the need for recognition, the need to know that yes, your life has been valuable. I highly recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member bastet
A very ambitious, but ultimately unfulfilling look at a madman who imagines himself to be an Egyptologist. The way the author creates the fantasy is interesting, but I found the ending disturbing--and not in a good way.
LibraryThing member mritchie56
Fantastic novel, the best I've read in years, set in the 20's in Egypt about a man obsessed with uncovering a fabled tomb, in the same way that Howard Carter did with the tomb of King Tut. The story is told through the letters and journals of a variety of characters, and much of the fun is figuring out who we can trust, who is being untrustworthy, and who can no longer tell fact from fantasy. The narrative takes a while to get going, but if you stick with it, you won't be able to stop. It's also that rare book that I can re-read with pleasure.… (more)
LibraryThing member stevenj
one narrator is dishonest, the other is foolish--put them together and you get a lot of fun deciding what really happened.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
The first time I read this book, it was as an audio (and I can still hear the narrator in my head – Simon Prebble did a fantastic job). Not exactly the best format for this since keeping track of names, dates, cryptic clues etc, is best done with a physical book. Thus at the end of my first run through, I had more questions than answers. It plagued me for days and I actually did listen to the end part several times. Did I hear and absorb what I think I heard and absorbed? Was the layered irony really that thick? Were the hidden in plain sight deceptions really that pervasive?

Having got through it again in trade paperback, the answer is yes. It is that densely ironic and subversive. Here we find the poster children for unreliable narrators. Second reading as good as the first, but I'm not sure how it will hold up for future reads.
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LibraryThing member atheist_goat
Pretentious like whoa, overlong, and did I mention pretentious - and I couldn't put it down. I don't even know how to describe this book, but it was quite an experience. At first I thought the ending was hugely lame - spelling out for the reader what had already been successfully brought across, and the author must believe his readers to be incredibly stupid if they haven't gotten it yet - and then I thought about it and realized that was totally not what the ending was about, and in fact it was to illustrate something crucial to the story and kind of heart-breaking. Very well done.… (more)
LibraryThing member Reader1066
The Egyptolist is a wonderfully constructed story. I think the last book I read that was written in letters and diaries was Dracula. You just don't see that very often because it's so hard to write action convincingly that way. But here it works. The Egyptologist is told primarily by two characters, Harold Ferrell, an Australian detective, and Ralph Trilipush, the Egyptologist, who each get to tell the story from their own perspective. It's like two stories in one. And neither of the narrators is very reliable.

The thing about this book is that you, the reader, have a job of work to do in reading this book. Because there are two first person perspective narratives going on here, you have a lot of filtering and evaluating to do. You have to keep asking yourself, what is really going on? You have to add these two stories together and try to come up with four, which at times is really hard. I noticed a lot of times when I thought I was started to get a handle on what was really going on and who was lying, about what, and why–and then someone would say or do something and it would completely throw me off track. Rest assured, though, all will be revealed at the end. Thank God for those last two dozen pages or so. I would have been pissed if the book ended without a complete resolution.

When I first started reading this, I thought I was going to be annoyed and/or disappointed with it. It was hard to get a handle on the characters and the plot, but I got completely sucked into this book. I was amazed at the talent that Phillips displayed in writing this book. Not only are the characters great and the plot well thought out and quick paced, but it was skillfully written. I can only imagine how hard it is to write a novel in letters, diaries and telegrams. In addition, it's one of the most intellectually interesting and stimulating book I've read since I graduated from college. :)

I think I'm going to have to go and find Phillips other book, Prague. If it's as good as this book I know I won't be disappointed.
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LibraryThing member Kasthu
With just the right kind of ironic humor, Arthur Phillps tries to capture the life of a fictional Egyptologist, Ralph M. Trlipush, in the latter part of the year 1922.

An eccentric old man named Barnabas Davies dies, with the intent to find, and compensate, illegitimate children he has scattered all over the world. The investigation leads to one Paul Caldwell of Sydney, Australia, born in the early 1890s and vanished mysteriously in the Egyptian dessert in the First World War. Who was Paul Caldwell? And who is (or was) Ralph Trilipush, the supposed English professor of Egyptology at Harvard University and engaged to the American heiress, Margaret Finneran? Through diary entries and letters, the author follows two stories: Trilipush's, as he prepares to uncover the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharoah named Atum-hadu; and that of an Australian detective, Harold Ferrell as he recounts his story from a retiring home in the 1950s. The various perspectives each of these two narrators have on the events contained herein are fascinating. Personal bias really and truly does have an effect on the way we view the world.

"Just how secret is secret enough?" is a question Trilipush poses on the matter of Atum-hadu and his buried tomb; but that same question might easily be asked of Trilipush's own life. Ralph gives us marvelous, self-centered accounts of growing up in Trilipush Hall in Kent, which, as the reader will find, are untrue; might also his account of discovering the tomb prove to be a fabrication? There are also mixed accounts of Trilipush's education, as well as his sexuality. The more one plunges into the story line, the more one finds that the stories of Ralph Trilipush and his Egyptian king are remarkably similar. Both seek to achieve immortality through a "third birth." This book is filled with Egyptian lore and trivia, as well as the fictional account of the life of Atum-hadu.

On the flip side is the story of Trilipush's fiancée, Margaret Finneran, and her father, who owns a department store chain in Boston. Both of these characters keep secrets from Trilipush which threaten to destroy the relationship between the Egyptologist and the American girl.
What I thought was marvelous was the deprecating way in which Trilipush describes Howard Carter, who at the moment this narrative takes place uncovers the tomb of Tutankhamen. Lord Carnarvon is secretly called "Lord Cashbags." I also loved the comments Trilipush makes about American tourists and the Egyptian natives. There is, of course, the highly-touted "mystery," which can easily be solved. But the mystery is NOT the point of this novel. This excellent book is a detailed account of a man struggling with his own identity.
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LibraryThing member craso
In 1922 while Howard Carter is uncovering King Tut’s tomb, Ralph Trilipush, also an Egyptologist, is obsessed with finding the tomb of Atum-hadu, supposed Egyptian king and erotic poet. Trilipush is engaged to marry Margaret Finneran, a Boston socialite, whose father is bank rolling the expedition. Australian detective, Harold Ferrell, sticks his nose into their business while investigating the death of Paul Caldwell, an Australian soldier stationed in Egypt at the same time as Trilipush. He finds inconsistencies in Trilipush’s background and starts to believe he killed Caldwell.

The story is told through journal entries, letters and cables. Most of the narrative comes from Trilipush’s journal from 1922. The other half of the narrative comes from Ferrell’s letters to Margaret’s nephew written in 1955. Both narrators are unreliable. Trilipush’s narrative can not be relied upon because he is so focused and sure of Atum-hadu’s existence that he can’t accept when the expedition starts to fall apart. Ferrell’s letters are also unreliable because he is writing from a rest home and piecing the story together from thirty-three year old notes and his own memories.

The theme of the story is immortality. Egyptian kings thought they would achieve immortality through the Egyptian burial rituals; being buried in tombs with objects that would help them in the afterlife and mummification. Trilipush believes his immortality lies in finding Atum-hadu’s tomb. As Ferrell writes to Macy, he talks about how they can team up to publish Ferrell’s cases as a series of detective stories.

There are no heroes in this novel. All of the characters are flawed; Margaret is a drug addict and her father hopes Trilipush’s find will pay off his underworld debts. Ferrell falls for Margaret and tries to sabotage her engagement to Trilipush.

Some of Trilipush’s journal entries are tedious. I found myself looking ahead to see when Margaret or Ferrell would add one of their letters to the narrative. Near the end though, Trilipush’s entries became so interesting I couldn’t put the book down. I highly recommend this novel to anyone interested in the psychology of obsession.
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LibraryThing member Storeetllr
I listened to this on audio a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it, and I've been meaning to read it in hard copy but just hadn't gotten around to it. So, in April 2008, when I had a chance to buy it in book form (trade paperback) at the L.A. Times Festival of Books and have the author sign it, I jumped at the chance. Mr. Phillips is a delightful man, very polite and soft-spoken, with the most beautiful azure blue eyes I've ever seen. I told him how much I enjoyed The Egyptologist, and he admitted with a shy smile that it is probably his secret favorite too. :) Anyway, The Egyptologist is a darkly funny novel mostly told by utterly unreliable narrators about the way the truth can be twisted to make reality unrecognizable. All of the characters ~ from the brilliant and ambitious but ultimately pathetic Ralph Trilipush & the wily but slimy detective to Egypt of the early 1900s ~ are well-drawn and spot-on. The Egyptologist reminded me of The Great Gatsby in some ways ~ the writing is fabulous, the narrators unreliable, their quests for immortality and their reinventions of themselves very reminiscent of Fitzgerald's masterpiece, yet it's also great adventure with undertones of horror a la H. Rider Haggard.… (more)
LibraryThing member verbafacio
The Egyptologist is a remarkable piece of literature, carefully crafted and very engrossing. The story revolves around Ralph Trilipush, an eccentric Harvard professor who is in search of the tomb of Atum-Hadu, a lascivious king who remains unknown to the scholarly world. But Trilipush is not all he seems, as the reader discovers from his own journals and recollections from an elderly private detective, Mr. Ferrell.

This book is so detailed; it is completely engrossing. The hints of unreality here and there seem to be intentional, to keep the reader in the same hazy state as Trilipush himself.

About 2/3 of the way through the book, I figured out what was really going on with Trilipush and his find. Knowing the truth doesn't make the unraveling of the plot any less enthralling. This is just an excellent read.
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LibraryThing member kenthighhouse
The author must have been paid by the word as he repeats him self constantly. I am befuddled by the reviewers that state that they were surprised by the ending as I had figured it out less than 1/2 way through and kept waiting to be fooled. It is a good read but could have been much shorter. I was very disappointed that they had the Ahrib that worked with the explorer (and was convicted of his murder) and they never had him take them to the dig sight where apparently the bodies were. A very big disappointment.… (more)




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