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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center




Four Trowels


By: T.M. Doran
Ignatius Press:  San Francisco
2011 (HC) 

T.M. Doran’s imaginative novel Toward the Gleam is a wonderfully conceived and beautifully written work of fiction.  Its premise is a simple one and one that has been used countless times novels of high adventure, heroic romance and even fantasy:  the protagonist finds an antiquity that holds the promise of unlocking the secrets of a civilization long lost to the contemporary world; he works tirelessly, perhaps even obsessively, to unlock those mysteries, all the way being pursued by nefarious dark forces intent upon using those secrets for their own dark purposes. 

What Mr. Doran does is to take this stock plotline and imbue it with a magical quality that elevates it far above its competitors.  The reader follows the peregrinations of John Hill, a veteran of the hellish trenches of the Somme in the Great War and an Oxford professor of philology, who stumbles upon an ancient manuscript sealed within a mysterious metallic box hidden in a cave in the English countryside.  The manuscript is written in a language that has been lost to the ages but his classical training allows him to decipher fragments of the text—enough to convince him that the manuscript tells the story of an advanced civilization lost for eons of time.   

Professor Hill dedicates more than a decade of his life to translating the mystical text, seeking help from scholars in Paris, Heidelberg and Stockholm—as well as from his circle of scholarly savants who gather regularly at the Oxford pub, the Eagle and Child, known informally by its waggish patrons as the Bird and Baby.  He enlists the aid of a Sorbonne scholar, Adler Alembert, who in time reveals himself to not only hold peculiar views on the literal existence of Plato’s Atlantis, but to be a deadly adversary who will stop at nothing to learn the secrets of the lost civilization.  Hill’s own obsession with the manuscript puts himself, his long-suffering wife E.M., their children, and his friends and colleagues in mortal danger.  In a desperate attempt to free himself from the grasp of Alembert, Hill writes a work of fiction based on the manuscript—a work that makes him famous but does not protect him from the megalomania of his deadly foe. 

Within the warp and woof of wondrous discovery, obsessive behavior, scholarly pursuits and frightful dangers, the author also weaves a tapestry of the ethos of the inter-war years:  The nuances of the tenets of materialism, relativism, utilitarianism and the other isms that may or may not have contributed to those other darker isms of the 20th Century – fascism, Nazism and Communism—play a complex role in the novel.  The author has also, not incidentally, created a villain in Adler Alembert, who can hold his own with the great villains of literature—up to and including Conan Doyle’s masterful creation, Professor Moriarty.    

As the reader follows the increasingly desperate efforts of the sometimes heroic, sometimes craven John Hill, he or she will begin to realize that the author has created an imaginary world peopled by very real historic characters, and this conceit will only add to the delight in this novel, and perhaps will add new delight in re-reading a celebrated trilogy written by another Oxford philologist named John! 

Four towels for this most admirable work of fiction!

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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.