August 30, 2004 12:00 PM

By Arthur Phillips

CRITIC’S CHOICE

“The moon’s an errant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun,” wrote Shakespeare. In The Egyptologist everyone’s looking to swipe some pale fire, not least the author, who has modeled this cracked, utterly engulfing detective tale on Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the czar of all unreliable-narrator yarns. In both novels, you don’t read between the lines; you live between them.

Phillips, matching the cleverness of his debut, Prague, sends his titular digger, a hero (or fraud) named (maybe) Ralph Trilipush, to Egypt in 1922, where he is trying to unearth the treasures of Atum-hadu, a pharaoh-poet (or maybe a pornographer—who, by the way, might not have existed). His every step is retraced by a cynical orange-haired Australian detective who, in 1954, recalls his tangled attempt to uncover the Egyptologist as a murderer (or maybe just to get under the covers with Trilipush’s fiancée in Boston). The tomb isn’t easy to find: Trilipush argues, “Over 3,500 years things do get misplaced.” As if he hasn’t got enough to worry about, nearby a pesky rival named Howard Carter is searching for the tomb of another—and, to Trilipush, overrated—pharaoh: Tut-ankh-Amen.

Trilipush’s Cheops-size ego is hilarious, and readers will be crazed to get to the next page—not only to find out what happens next, but to find out if what just happened really happened.

NOVEL

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