THE MASK OF ATREUS
By: A.J. Hartley
Berkley Books, New York
April 2006 (pb)
The Mask of Atreus is a debut thriller by author
A.J. Hartley, and it demonstrates all the strengths and weaknesses of an
initial effort. The prose is crisp, the major characters engaging, and the
plot – at least in the first three-quarters of the novel—moves along at a
fast but not feverish pace. If there’s a weakness, it’s one of plotting
that takes the reader in one direction (or misdirection) and then abruptly
takes him or her in a completely different path to the plots denouement.
The problem is that the misdirected plot is more fascinating in many ways
than the real plot!
Deborah Miller is a tall, almost gawky (we are told)
curator of the Druid Hill Museum in Atlanta, an eclectic natural history
museum that is the beloved creation of Richard Dixon, an aging
philanthropist and self-styled dilettante, who is both a mentor and father
figure to Deborah. It is understood that upon Richard’s retirement, Deborah
will succeed to the directorship of the museum, which will be for her a
dream come true.
The dream becomes a nightmare when Deborah is summoned
to the museum in the middle of the night following a successful fundraising
event. The mysterious voice on a late night phone call hints of a “body,”
which is an apparent reference to Richard Dixon’s brutally assaulted corpse
found in a hidden chamber in the museum. The plot moves ahead at a pace
that hints at the darkest possible motives for the murder and an answer that
lies in the mythic past of Mycenaean kings and ancient Greek poets.
Richard’s last written word was “Atreus,” and this clue, plus a deadly
attack against Deborah on the freeways of Atlanta, the growing suspicion
that an investigating police officer may not in fact be a cop at all,
and a website visited by Richard shortly before his death that shows the
image of a Mycenaean death mask under the file name of “Atreus,” convinces
Deborah to flee to Athens to find the answers to her friend’s death.
The plotting twists and turns as Deborah slowly tumbles
to the conclusion that a valuable artifact has been stolen from the secret
room at Druid Hill and that the answer to the mystery surrounding Richard’s
death, the attacks on her person and the seemingly unconnected death of an
elderly former Soviet border guard near the scene of Richard’s murder lies,
not in the quasi-mythic era of the Trojan War, but in the 19th
Century explorations of famed archaeological entrepreneur, Heinrich
Schliemann. Or does it?
This is not a great debut novel, but it shows flashes
of style and plotting that makes me hope there will be more novels to come.
His academic background in literature and his avocational interests in
classical archaeology are evident in his writing, and there should be good
things to come. The Mask of Atreus is a good airport read—perhaps
A.J. Hartley’s next effort will be a bit more substantial.
Two trowels for this debut effort.
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