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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Judgement of the Mummy

Christian Jacq

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Title: The Judgement of the Mummy
Author: Christian Jacq
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 532 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Judgement of the Mummy - US
The Judgement of the Mummy - UK
The Judgement of the Mummy - Canada
Le procès de la momie - Canada
The Judgement of the Mummy - India
Le procès de la momie - France
  • French title: Le procès de la momie
  • Translated by Sue Dyson

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Our Assessment:

C : strange mix and ambitious mess

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Christian Jacq is best-known as an Egyptologist and a popular author of historical fiction largely set in ancient Egypt, but his first published works were more conventional detective fiction and before he really hit his stride with his Egyptian sagas he published, under the pseudonym J.B.Livingstone, over forty novel featuring early-nineteenth century English Inspector Higgins. The erstwhile last from the original series of these was published in 1997, but a decade later Jacq resurrected Inspector Higgins for this novel, published under his own name (and he has since reissued many of the original series under his own name).
       As the title (and cover) more than hint at, while set in early 1820s London and featuring Inspector Higgins, Jacq doesn't neglect the Egyptian angle in The Judgement of the Mummy -- and he also uses real-life historical figures in his story, notably the fascinating outsized one of Giovanni Battista Belzoni. A larger-than-life onetime circus strongman, but with an engineering bent, Belzoni had eventually wound up Egypt. Aside from collecting antiquities, he made several important discoveries -- notably gaining entrance to hitherto undiscovered inner chambers of ancient tombs. Returning to England, he set up the exhibition in Piccadilly featured in this novel; among the items on display and which also plays a role in the story, was that alabaster sarcophagus that was eventually acquired by Sir John Soane.
       The signal event in the novel is, however, a grand unveiling at the start of the exhibition, as Belzoni conducts "an archaeological and scientific experiment" in front of a select audience, as he removes a mummy from the sarcophagus, and undoes its bandages (selling off bits and pieces as he goes ...). The body is remarkably well preserved -- "The embalmers had never before created such a masterpiece" -- as indeed it hasn't been traditionally mummified, with brains and viscera left intact. But it's so well-preserved that: "one would swear that this Egyptian were about to sit up", and those that have seen it admit: "It looked more like a person asleep than a dried-out corpse" .....
       Belzoni is all about cashing in on his Egyptian hoard, and the mummy (and its trimmings) is just another piece to be monetized. Disturbingly, however, three of those in attendance at the mummy-show are soon found murdered, attacked by the unusual brain-removing hook normally used by ancient Egyptian embalmers. And the mummy itself is stolen.
       Inspector Higgins is in retirement, but the government summons him to investigate -- even as they are certain that the guilty party is one Littlewood, "the ringleader of the conspirators who are seeking to overthrow George IV and bring about chaos". Set on Littlewood's trail, Higgins does become a thorn in the revolutionary's side, and a cat and mouse game (or, more melodramatically: "A battle to the death had been joined between them") -- and considerable unrest-fomenting -- follow. But that's only part of the story: readers are privy to the existence of a shadowy figure referred to only as the 'rescuer', the murderer and the one who now has the mummy. The rescuer has plans for the mummy -- which include retrieving the pieces of wrappings dispersed at the viewing.
       Higgins is on the trail of Littlewood and the mummy (and cautiously and correctly suspects that that is not entirely the same single trail); Littlewood is after Higgins and the mummy, while also trying to start a revolution; and the creepy rescuer is doing all sorts of creepy things with and around the mummy.
       A nice touch is how different police- and investigation-standards of the day are presented as. The murders are all covered up and most of the evidence done away with before Higgins even has a chance to investigate, appearances (and society gossip) mattering more to everyone than forensics: when Higgins asks whether the authorities found: "any ... material clues", he's told: "Don't look for pointless details, inspector". And nearly everyone is unimpressed by Higgins' position, uninterested in talking to him, much less sharing possibly relevant information; what he winds up with is: "no lack of lies by omission, travesties of the truth and false trails". He frequently has to resort to threats, of arrest or other police unpleasantness, to even get his foot in the door. Higgins can't trust most of the police anyway, as Littlewood has a surprising number of them in his pocket (despite what happens to those who give him information, once they're no longer needed), and his approach to things tends to raise eyebrows; to many it simply looks like: "He's running around all over the place and not achieving anything".
       Much the same could be said of the novel. Dialogue-heavy, with constant shifting of focus -- back and forth between the stories of Belzoni and his wife, Higgins, Littlewood, the rescuer, and others, with varying amounts of overlap -- the story nevertheless plods rather than flies along. Jacq is clearly invested in his historical stories -- especially that of the colorful Belzoni -- but manages little better than cartoonish sketches of the time and background. Both Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, racing to discover the secret to deciphering the hieroglyphs -- are dragged into the story, but Jacq can't manage more than making these episodes feel like (rather forced) star-cameos. There is some decent action, but with far too little build-up or break-down -- most is simply tossed in, including Higgins saving the day.
       Higgins, though too thinly drawn, is an appealing enough figure, with a nice dry English humor (and not quite convincing wish to stay in or return to retirement):

     'A killer mummy ? That's insane !'
     'It hasn't yet been charged,' Higgins corrected her.
       Silly though the final courtroom trial showdown is, it at least a creative way of concluding things -- but not nearly sufficient payoff for the slog of getting there.
       There are all sorts of interesting bits and pieces to The Judgement of the Mummy, from the historical figures Jacq uses to some of the crimes and actions, but it's just not a very well put together thriller, and thus not nearly as enjoyable read as it should be.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 November 2016

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The Judgement of the Mummy: Giovanni Battista Belzoni: Christian Jacq: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French novelist and Egyptologist Christian Jacq was born in 1947.

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