Book Reviews

Review Rating

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 Genesis Secret by Tom Knox

Reviewed on: November 1, 2009


Viking Penguin:  New York
2009 (HC)

First-time novelist Tom Knox has written one of the best archaeology thrillers I’ve read in many a year!  The Genesis Secret is a tightly-written and intelligent novel that combines archaeological fact and fiction with edge-of-your-seat excitement and drama.  It is not a novel for every reader as Knox does not hold back in depicting scenes of violence and acts of depraved behavior by his loathsome villain.  The scenes are quite graphic and may even be gratuitous at times, but this is a thrilling journey that invites us to join.

For more than half of the book’s 369 pages, two plot lines emerge and seem to be quite unrelated.  In London, Inspector Mark Forrester of New Scotland Yard investigates the brutalization of an elderly watchman at the Benjamin Franklin House museum.  The old man has been left to die, his tongue cut out, his hair cut off, and twin stars of David carved into his chest.  Along with the assault, signs of excavation in the museum cellars indicate that the attackers were hunting for something buried in the historic building.  Further investigations lead Forrester to a similar crime committed in the Isle of Man—the brutal murder of a man with a Star of David carved in his chest—and again, signs of digging.  Forrester’s further researches lead him to the conclusion that he may be on the trail of some young, upscale deviants who practice torture and human sacrifice—but to what ends?  Subtle clues point to the possibility that these monsters are somehow following in the footsteps of the 18th Century Hellfire Club—a collection of intellectuals, aristocrats, government leaders and freethinkers (including Benjamin Franklin), who sought the secrets of ancient knowledge and mysteries, including the occult.

The second plot line follows the odyssey of American-born, The Times of London journalist Rob Luttrell, who is assigned—as a break from his duties as war correspondent in violence-ridden Iraq—to write a feature story on the German-led archaeological excavation at Gobekli Tepe, in Kurdish southeastern Turkey.   Gobekli Tepe is a fascinating site—identified as the oldest yet known village in human history, dating back some 10-12,000 years.  It is an urban center, complete with what is thought to be a ritual or perhaps a funerary center, created by a hunter-gatherer culture that had no pottery, no metallurgy and no agriculture.  Adding to the mystery of Gobekli Tepe are the telltale signs in the archaeological record that the entire site was purposefully buried—literally entombed—about 8,000 years ago.  In later times, the area was inhabited by Akkadians, Sumerians and Hittites—and the nearby modern Turkish town of Sanliurfa is thought by many scholars as the original site of Ur and nearby Haran, the home of the Biblical patriarch Abraham and the site of the near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac.

Rob is clearly fascinated by the work being done by German archaeologist Franz Breitner and his lovely assistant, osteoarchaeologist Christine Meyer.  It doesn’t take the reader long to realize Luttrell’s interest in Christine may go well beyond her expertise in ancient burials and skeletons!  Nevertheless, Rob writes his story and is making preparations to leave (reluctantly) when Franz Breitner is tragically killed and Christine convinces Rob that it is murder rather than accidental death that ended the archaeologist’s life.   She reveals to Rob that she knows Breitner had been conducting clandestine excavations under cover of night and further believed, based upon encoded entries in his journal, that his secret finds were being hidden in the scruffy little museum in Haran and that Breitner believed Gobekli Tepe may have been the allegorical foundation for the Biblical Garden of Eden found in Genesis.

The bewildering array of artifacts Rob and Christine find in Haran lead Christine to believe that Gobekli Tepe, rather than a Garden of Eden, may have been the source or place of origin for torture, mutilation and human sacrifice playing such a central role in many ancient Levantine religions.  Their investigations lead them to seeking further insight and wisdom from the Yezidi, adherents to an ancient syncretic religion that includes elements of Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism—a group persecuted by both Muslims and Christians for purportedly worshipping Satan.

It is at this point that the two separate threads of the novel begin to converge and meet at a violent and bloody denouement—and we are at last made privy to the “Genesis Secret.”

As stated earlier, The Genesis Secret is a well-written, tightly plotted thriller that succeeds in great part by the use Tom Knox makes of the real historical and archaeological record, and then spinning an imaginative “what-if” tale.  Gobekli Tepe is in fact an important archaeological site in Turkey and may very well provide great insights into the little-known cultures that preceded the Akkadian, Sumerians, Canaanites, etc.  The Hellfire Club was a gathering of 18th Century intellectuals who dabbled in subjects arcane as well as philosophical and scientific.  And the Yezidi is an ancient cult that still exists in the Near East, and most recently has found protection from the enmity of their Islamic and Christian neighbors by U.S. military forces in northern Iraq.

Again—perhaps not a novel for everyone, but for those who choose to read it, I believe you will be very satisfied with this tale of high adventure.  Four Trowels for Tom Knox’s first novel—may he write many more!

Twenty Years in the Trenches: Archaeology in Fiction

William Gresens, longtime MVAC supporter and volunteer, has been writing reviews of archaeological fiction as MVAC’s book reviewer for twenty years.  In this interview Bill shares how he got started writing reviews for MVAC, how the genre has changed, highlights, and his thoughts looking forward. 

Bill Gresen’s Book Review 20th Anniversary

While Bill's reviews go back 20 years now, his relationship with MVAC goes back more than twice that long! The reviews capture some of the things we enjoy most about Bill-- he's perceptive, methodical, a clear thinker, and a whole lot of fun! We look forward to this relationship--and Bill's reviews!--continuing for many years to come.

The March 2021 review marks the 20th anniversary of reviews of archaeological fiction.  It has been my pleasure and great fun to while away the hours reading these books—for the most part, at least—and writing the reviews!  My thanks to MVAC allowing me to prattle on and I look forward to the years ahead.

Bill Gresens