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3 trowels

THE TENTH CHAMBER

By: Glenn Cooper
Arrow Books:  London
2010(pb)

Glenn Cooper has written a fast-paced, engaging adventure yarn, absolutely perfect for a lazy summer afternoon read in the backyard or beach.  Deep in the Dordogne (formerly the Perigord) department of France, a fire breaks out in the library of a Cistercian abbey dating back to the Middle Ages.  In putting out the fire, the local firefighters from the tiny village of Ruac discover an ancient book written in an unknown script, and the abbot engages Hugo Pineau, antiquities restorer, to assess the cost of saving the smoke- and water-logged document.  While the main text is written in an as-yet untranslated code or cipher, the dedication page is written in elegant Latin the Hugo easily translates; it reads:   “Ruac, 1307, I, Bathomieu, friar of Abbey Ruac, am 220 years old and this is my story”!  Hugo calls upon his old friend, archaeologist Luc Simard, to help him solve the mystery of the encoded book and the adventure begins. 

While Hugo sends the text off to be de-coded by cryptography experts he has worked with previously, he piques Luc’s interest in the project by showing him stunning illustrations of bulls, deer, bison and other creatures sketched within the book as well as a crude map with an “X” marking the spot—whatever it might be!  Luc is able to decipher the map and he in turn is led to a series of ten chambered caves with incredibly sophisticated cave art, similar to the artistry found at Chauvet and les Eyzies.  The drawings are thought, because of their artistic superiority, to be of more recent vintage than the magnificent cave art found at Lascaux (18,000 B.P.) but Luc’s discovery of an Aurignacian flint blade in context points to the art being created at an unbelievable 30,000 years before the present!  And unlike other examples of Upper Paleolithic cave art, which feature large animals only, the tenth and final chamber of the Ruac cave system pictures a garden-like setting with carefully drawn plants and herbs as well as a life-sized shamanic figure with the head of a bird.   

Working with the Ministry of Culture, Luc sets out to assemble an entourage of scientists, including Pleistocene geologists, cave art experts and conservationists, as well as lithic, bone and pollen specialists, and a lovely young archaeobotanist who happened to have been his ex-lover!  Their assignment is to research the site while mounting an all-out effort to preserve this incipient national monument and to protect the delicate ecosystem of the cave. 

The excavation turns decidedly dark as first Zvi Alon, the Israeli Paleolithic art expert, dies in a mysterious fall from a ledge near the cave, and shortly thereafter Hugo dies in an equally mysterious car crash on the twisting turns of the road leading to Ruac.  While disaster follows disaster at the site, and mysterious forces—both local and external;--seem intent upon stymieing the project, the de-coding of Barthomieu’s book continues apace and the secrets it divulges are beyond Luc’s wildest imaginings. 

Glenn Cooper has managed to bring together interesting and sympathetic characters, a rousing archaeological puzzle concerning the cave art conundrum, conspiracies both ancient and modern, and even a bit of history (admittedly fantasized for plot effect) concerning real historical figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard and Heloise and the Knights Templar, into a very neat and rather tidy package.  The denouement may have turned out to be a bit flatter than the initial clever and convoluted plot promised, but on the whole a reader looking for high adventure and an imaginative plot in his or her light summer reading should not be disappointed. 

Three trowels for The Tenth Chamber.   

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.