Monday, September 15, 2008

Guest Blog--The Shape of Sand

Between reading Marjorie Eccles’ books Shadows and Lies and The Shape of Sand, I seem to have forgotten how long it takes for her to get into the meat of the story. The jacket promised me a mystery about the body of a woman hidden behind a wall. However, it was about page 140 before Eccles has finished setting the background for her mystery.

The Shape of Sand takes place in England but revolves around events that take place 40 or 50 years before the discovery of the body. The journal of Beatrice Jardine recounts a holiday in Egypt ten years before her unexpected disappearance left her family in disgrace from the ensuing scandal. This novel by Eccles has not only the shape of sand but shadows of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Beatrice’s journal tries to convey a mystery wrapped in the exotic atmosphere of the streets of Cairo and an expedition to ancient tombs along the Nile.

Perhaps if I had not taken a university course where I learned that the ancient Egyptians had no word in their language for art, I would have been more impressed with the descriptions of the monuments and frescos commissioned by Ramses II with Eccles’ dialog about "art." And it might have helped if I didn’t have vivid memories of the Indian wrongly accused of inappropriate attention to an English woman in A Passage to India.

I have not figured out how Eccles can build the atmosphere for her mysteries with less volume, but I have endured the build up and enjoyed both mysteries after she gets down to the business of solving the crime. In both of the novels I have read, Eccles spends so much time establishing past events in South Africa and Egypt that she almost lost me.

During this past year, I have read several mysteries set in Cairo in the early twentieth century written by Michael Pearce. With an economy of words, Pearce is able to bring Egypt in that era to life. Since he lived in Cairo for part of his life, I feel far more confident in the picture that he has drawn with his writing than I do in Eccles’. Reading The Shape of Sand, I was reminded of those novels of Egypt under British rule, and I might see what Pearce’s character Gareth Owen, the Mamur Zapt in Cairo, has been up to lately.

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