Book Reviews

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With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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The House of the Sphinx by Sarah Wisseman

Reviewed on: June 1, 2011


Hillard Harris Publishers:  Boonsboro, MD
2009 (pb)

Sarah Wisseman continues her delightful Lisa Donahue series by departing from the standard archaeological mystery mode.   In a sense she has done this previously when her second in the series, The Dead Sea Codex, was a prequel to Bound for Eternity.  In this, the fourth Donahue adventure, archaeology – or more accurately, Egyptology—serves as a backdrop for a medical thriller set in a travelogue.

Lisa, taking a break from her duties as Director of the Boston University Museum of Archaeology and History, joins her husband James Barber, a radiologist at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, for a delayed honeymoon—a ten day tour of the wonders and mysteries of Egyptian archaeology.

This tour of a lifetime soon turns into the Vacation from Hell, but not so much so that it shoves the marvels of ancient Egypt off the page.  In fact, Sarah Wisseman delivers a first rate guide to touring in Egypt.  From the initial visit to the magnificent, if very traditional and somewhat confusing hodgepodge that is the Cairo Museum to the great pyramids of the Giza plateau to the colossi of Abu Simbel far up the Nile to the splendors of Luxor, Karnak and the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, the author describes Lisa’s journey will great vividness and affection.  This attention to detail includes a wonderfully accurate account of the obligatory camel ride and photo opportunity at Giza—an exercise in salutary humiliation for almost every Western tourist to Egypt!

The focus of the novel leaves Lisa and James and their motley band of touring comrades (complete with the usual blend of whiners and annoying ladies of a certain age from Iowa) to introduce the reader to the extended Farouk family, whose house on the Street of the Sphinx in Luxor proves to be central to the developing plot.  The description of this family, whose members cover the gamut from noble to venal to downright evil, seems credible and once again author Wisseman’s careful attention to detail—Zara Farouk’s skillful making of phyllo pastry, a kind of baklava—lends yet an additional note of verisimilitude to the novel.

The wonders of Egypt give way, however, to the possible horrors of bio-terrorism as a lethal illness begins to stalk the tour group and the contagion—identified as small pox—claims its first victim, a member of the Farouk family.  James is the first on the scene and the potential impact of the appearance of this all-but-conquered affliction quickly becomes apparent when similar cases are reported from Megiddo in Israel to Petra in Jordan to members of their tour group.  The outbreak, however, seems to be centered in the Luxor area and a team of medical experts from the US CDC as well as Egypt, convene a strike force, along with agents from multi-national law enforcement and the Egyptian Supreme Council (in the person of the ubiquitous Zahi Hawass) gather to identify the source of the contagion and isolate it.  A terrorist attack using bio-weapons would prove to be not only a public health catastrophe but a disaster for the Egyptian economy which depends to a huge degree on tourist travel.

What follows is a dramatic depiction of efforts of these medical experts to do battle with the outbreak—James is included because of his contact with the initial victim and his earlier experiences with infectious diseases as a volunteer for Doctors Without Borders—and the efforts of law enforcement to track down the perpetrators before the attacks become more widely spread.  Lisa finds herself caught up in the manhunt and very nearly loses her life as she comes face to face with the desperate bio-killers.

This is an entertaining yet thought-provoking novel that works on multiple levels.  It is not without its shortcomings—at times key characters seem a bit too cool or detached in the face of a potential public health calamity, but perhaps that’s the way we would like our public servants to behave in times of crisis, rather than running around with their hair on fire, to borrow a phrase!

Three trowels for The House of the Sphinx, with the hope there will be many more Lisa Donohue adventures yet to come!