The Murder of King Tut
by James Patterson & Martin Dugard (2009)
I have an ability, or a curse, to focus on several projects at once. But Tut was distracting me from all the other projects.I once made a vow to myself to never read another James Patterson novel. I have read three of his Alex Cross 'mysteries,' each more incompetently written than the last, and each reinforcing my belief that Alex Cross is one of the most ineffectual detectives I've ever come across. And they were boring, perhaps the worst sin a thriller can commit.
- James Patterson
So when his new "non-fiction thriller" The Murder of King Tut came across my desk, I initially ignored it. But then I considered whether or not I should include it as my next entry in Critical Monkey, my ongoing exercise in self-induced brain mutilation. By my own rules it should not count, as a primary component of the challenge was to read authors I had not previously read. But this was a work co-authored by Martin Dugard, and might just qualify. Patterson has a lucrative side-business in coming up with plotlines but letting other authors do all the dirty work of actually writing the things. Perhaps I could make an exception? After all, maybe Dugard was an exceptionally talented writer and could somehow overcome the limitations of his hack co-author and come up with something, at the very least, bearable.
Alas, I cannot in good conscience place King Tut as an official entry, as Patterson was most definitely involved to a large degree (see below). I should never listen to myself. I should gouge out my eyes with a rusty spoon the next time such an impulse takes hold. Consider this an entry with an asterisk, a mark that the reader definitely suffered at the hands of a meastro of hackdom.
The Murder of King Tut is, without fear of exaggeration, one of the absolute worst books I have ever had the displeasure to read, and very likely the worst I've read to be released by a major publishing house (Little, Brown and Company being the perpetrators of this particular crime against humanity). It is a cruel exercise in banality, a work so inane and lightweight a book that Dan Brown would be impressed. It isn't even a book; it's an outline, a sketch, and one that would undoubtedly never have seen the light of day were it not for the galling hubris of its main author.
I say that without fear of argument for, you see, The Murder of King Tut is not simply a novel (sorry, "non-fiction thriller") about Tutankhamun. Nor is it solely about Howard Carter, British explorer and discoverer of Tut's tomb. No, it is also the gripping (apologies, 'gripping') tale of James Patterson, "one of the best-selling writers of all time," and a man suddenly consumed by a new obsession:
As I do on many mornings, I was walking Donald Trump's golf paradise in West Palm, my favorite course anywhere. But my mind was on Tut. What an incredible mystery this was turning out to be. I was becoming as obsessed as Howard Carter must have been.Yes, indeed, as obsessed a man as Carter, a man who, if Patterson and Dugard's research is to be believed, sacrified everything and spent decades of his life toiling in the deserts of Egypt for his chance at fame and fortune. Yes, he and Patterson, playing the links and mulling over random facts in his head. Peas in a pod.
It's easy to be snarky, yes; even easier when faced with a man who brags, "I have a hunch that Tut was murdered. And I hope, at least on paper, to prove it." Because I honestly don't have a clue what Patterson hoped to achieve by this undertaking, other than possibly gaining a written record of his own ego. It's hard to take anyone seriously who writes of his theory that Tut was murdered, "There was that gut instinct of mine again - the reason, I think, that Time magazine had once called me "The Man Who Can't Miss." Nice bit of reverse-bragging there. When Patterson writes, "My gut feeling is getting stronger. Tut was murdered...I just have to figure out who killed the poor guy," his ego stretches the exercise in self-gratification to the breaking point. The book is not about Tut, it is about Patterson. And King Tut is not a well-thought out historical re-enactment of Tut's life, it is a thin and barren exercise in narcissism, a mystery as compelling as anything ever faced by the Hardy Boys, and not nearly so well-written.
Patterson makes a point right off the bat that he is a stickler for research; I'll let that claim lie. I am no Egyptologist, nor a history buff, and cannot make any claims as to the accuracy of his and Dugard's research. He states that Dugard travelled to Britain and Egypt on exhaustive research jaunts, and I have no reason to disbelieve this. I can only assert that none of this attention to detail shows up in the final product, which is a depiction of Egyptian life straight out of the most juvenile of juvenile literature, filled with featureless characterizations and dialogue along the lines of "If I ever see you looking at me that way again, I will feed your heart to the crocodiles." In fact, the entire book is written as if for very young minds; the chapters are rarely more than three pages long, paragraphs are usually made of three sentences or less, and the font is fairly large. King Tut is barely an essay, and never becomes a book.
And as for the tale itself? Patterson and Dugard tell the dual stories (ignoring Paterson's mercifully brief examinations of himself) of Tut's upbringing and that of Howard Carter, a young English boy who is fated to discover Tut's tomb. Carter's overall tale is mostly exposition, with very little in the way of dialogue or characterization, rife with passages of 'excitement' such as this:
His heart raced as he finally held his lantern into the burial chamber. The workers standing behind him peered excitedly over his shoulder.What dialogue there is is of the pre-teen adventure variety, such as when Carter discovers the footprints of a thief who has burgled one of his sites:
There was nothing there.
The treasure, and the pharaoh's mummy, had already been stolen.
By somebody else.
Carter guaged the prints with his tape measure. They were the exact size of those found at the robbery. "Down to the millimeter," he marveled. "I've got you, el Rasoul!"Tut's tale is no better, a race through the lives of himself and his predecessors that barely functions as a sketch, and never rises to the level of an honest-to-god work of research. P&D pepper Tut's life with ludicrously inane dialogue, such as this exposition-laden exchange between Tut and his mother:
"Tut, there's something else we need to talk about. I need you to pay attention to what I have to tell you now."And let's not forget the sterling machinations of Aye, Patterson's purported murderer, a villain straight out of the mustache-twirling variety of old movies, prone to such pronouncements as:
"You are just a boy and have not yet been trained in the ways of the pharaoh. But you must know that this is your destiny."
The boy stopped her. "I don't understand."
"You will be pharaoh one day, Tut."
"I don't want to be pharaoh. I don't! Why can't you be pharaoh, Mother?"
"It is not considered best for a woman to rule Egypt, Tut. But because I am of royal blood, I will find a way to rule for as long as it takes you to learn to be a great pharaoh...I know that you will do great things. You will be a pharaoh people always remember."
"I'll deal with her when the time comes," Aye mumbled, already planning his crime..."Someday I will be the pharaoh," he said boldly.So, yes, King Tut is bad. Monstrously, unforgettably bad. It functions neither as a historical examination of the fossil record nor as a thriller, as it forgets that a thriller needs characters, atmosphere, and above all, thrills. But what is truly astonishing is that any publisher would take such a pitiful excuse for a treatise - a treatise whose central conceit, as Bookgasm's Rod Lott has pointed out, has already been considered in Michael R. King and Gregory M. Cooper’s Who Killed King Tut? and Bob Brier’s The Murder of Tutankhamun - that any publisher would deign to release such a pathetic wretch of a work to the public. The Murder of King Tut is horribly-written tripe that should never have seen the light of day, save for the powerful fact that money-machine James Patterson put his name on it.
The Murder of King Tut is not a book; it is a cash grab, plain and simple. It is a scheme to remove $33 dollars from the pockets of fans, and reward them with the barest minimum necessary for it to qualify as an actual book. The entire 340 page book can be read in under three hours, written at the level of a particularly bright Grade 4 child. That this piece of hackwork was released at all is utterly contemptible, a middle finger to Patterson's many fans. His hubris is astounding, his arrogance depressing. It is that which transforms King Tut from merely being a waste of time into something worthy of all the bile and vitriol one can spew at it.
VERDICT: MONKEY CANNOT CONTAIN HIS LOATHING