When I was in grade school, a museum exhibit called “Treasures of Tutankhamun” visited six cities in the United States. I lucked out—the city I lived in was one of them. I got to see the exhibit on a school field trip, and again with my parents. In the manner of fifth graders, we tried to be really cool about it. “Hey, are you going to see King Tut?” There was so much publicity about it that we were all on a first name basis with the boy king before the treasures hit the exhibit hall. Wanting to see it made you nerdy, so any mention of the field trip had to be qualified with a statement that you only wanted to see the mummy, because mummies! Or that all that gold was kind of amazing, and wasn’t the jewelry pretty?
I tried to be as offhand about it as the other kids, but the more I read about Tutankhamun’s life, the discovery of his tomb, the curse (!) and ancient Egypt in general, the more interested I became. When I actually saw the exhibit, I was hooked. I’ve been fascinated by the topic ever since. If any museum I visit has an Egyptian section, I head there first. (Note: any rumors you may have heard involving me setting off alarms by pressing my nose against the case for a better view of something are highly exaggerated. The suggestion that I shouldn’t be let loose without a tee shirt that reads “I wandered off from the tour” is fair).
So I was delighted to find Erica Ruth Neubauer’s debut novel, Murder at the Mena House. Set in Egypt in 1926, it features young American widow Jane Wunderly, whose husband died during the war. In spite of the matchmaking efforts of her Aunt Millie and the attentions of the dashing and mysterious Mr. Redvers, Jane holds firm to her decision to never remarry, for reasons that become clear as the story unfolds. She has come to Egypt to learn about Egypt, to see the pyramids and the treasures of the pharaohs, and to understand the people and their life. She is firmly on the side of those who believe that the fabulous artifacts being uncovered by archaeologists from all over the world should remain in Egypt, and is well aware of the illicit trade that goes on around them. When Jane discovers the body of another hotel guest, socialite Anna Stainton, she becomes a suspect. In the eyes of the police, Anna and Jane were rivals for the affections of Mr. Redvers. In order to clear her name, Jane turns to sleuthing. Might Anna have been killed by a jealous rival? What about a spurned lover? Are stolen artifacts involved? What about blackmail? As Jane digs deeper, the possibilities and the danger mount. With help from Mr. Redvers, who is not the boring banker he pretends to be, Jane works to solve the crime while the body count rises.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author creates a great sense of place, using everything from the weather to the clothing to make you feel you’re in Egypt in the 1920’s. The cast of characters is entertaining, the subplots well integrated, and the pacing is good. Fans of Amelia Peabody will enjoy this, as will those enjoy historical mysteries and those set outside of the United Kingdom or the US. I am hoping Jane Wunderly has many more cases to solve.