Author Interview: The Scarab Heart

Michael Gallagher in conversation with Joan Taylor, author of the critically acclaimed Conversations with Mr. Prain and the historical The Englishman, the Moor and the Holy City, about the second Lizzie Blaylock novel, The Scarab Heart:

Michael Gallagher and Joan Taylor - photos by MKW

JT: What makes an Egyptian archaeological dig so perfect as a setting for a murder mystery?

MG: I knew early on that the second book was going to be a whodunnit set in Egypt, and it occurred to me that the Valley of the Kings might be a fantastic place to stage a murder. The Ancient Egyptians called it Set Ma’at or “the Place of Truth” for a good reason: like many sacred sites around the world it has an other-worldly ambience. All it takes is a light hand and a little loving care to bring this to life in the text. In the 19th century it became a magnet for amateur archaeologists from all over Europe, so much so that by 1885, when The Scarab Heart is set, people were beginning to think that the valley had been dug dry. And yet such was the passion for Ancient Egyptian antiquities that they still came. It’s actually quite a remote spot, and this works well in the context of a murder mystery—the murderer is guaranteed to be found amongst a small group of suspects, each of whom the reader has come to know well.

JT: Is it all too easy to be led astray by first impressions?

MG: As a writer, I certainly hope so! Otherwise I’d be out of a job. That said, I tried to “play fair” in the way that Agatha Christie used to play fair when writing her wonderful murder mysteries. I always report what Lizzie sees, hears and feels; it’s impossible not to since she’s the narrator and the book is in her voice—but bear in mind that, though she may be observant and bright, Lizzie Blaylock’s by no means infallible. She might notice someone’s behaviour and yet fail to understand the motives behind it. As a reader, you get to play detective; it’s your job to see beneath the skin.

JT: What does Lizzie learn in The Scarab Heart?

MG: She learns about love—in many of its exhilarating and occasionally terrifying guises—to a certain extent from Rose, who’s like an aunt to her, but in the most part from Merit, who’s like a big sister. She learns that life is horribly unpredictable—which is ironic, given what happens to her at the end of the book. I also think she learns that adult relationships are even more twisted and messy than those that she forms with her own peers. I expect many teenagers learn much the same thing. Oh, and she learns to make bread, which, if you’ve read the novel, you’ll realize is not as flippant as it sounds.

JT: How powerful is love?

MG: Having decided to set the second book in Egypt, I was sorely in need of a good back-story, and an ancient curse or an army of mummies staggering through the camp was not going to “cut the mustard”, so to speak. While researching Egypt’s 18th dynasty I came across a poem in Immanuel Velikovsky’s book Oedipus and Akhenaten, a poem he claimed had been scratched into the gold foil at the foot of the KV55 mummy, whom he believed—as the majority of people did until quite recently—to be the pharaoh Smenkh-ka-re. I was especially struck by the last line of the poem: “Call me by name again, again, forever and never will it sound without response”. It was as if the writer were making an extraordinary commitment to answer their loved one’s call for all eternity. Suddenly I had a eureka moment where I understood that the back-story needed to be a love story involving just such a promise. I think we’d all like to believe that love is powerful enough to reach beyond the grave. I know I would. It’s one of the few motivating forces that can override one’s sense of self-preservation—I regularly seem to read about dog owners who risk life and limb to rescue their cherished pet, often with tragic results. As the stranger warns Merit in the tomb: “Love is the thing that can hurt us most”.

JT: Was Pharaoh Akhen-aton one of the creepiest rulers ever?

MG: I certainly paint him that way. I imagined him as the kind of child who pulls the wings off flies—just to see how they cope—locked into the body of a great, hulking man. He’s not exactly cruel, he’s simply amoral, never having developed an understanding that other people have feelings. I should point out that in the past others have seen Akhen-aton quite differently. Flinders Petrie, the Egyptologist who founded the wonderful Petrie Museum off Gower Street in London, likened Atonism to Christianity since they both worshipped only one god. He considered Akhen-aton’s rule to be a golden age of spiritual values and civilization. His views helped shape general opinion from the early 1900’s on. In 1937 Agatha Christie wrote the play Akhnaton, an unusually non-commercial piece in which she portrayed the pharaoh as a wise and peace-loving holy man. It wasn’t published until 1973 and has only been performed by amateur casts as far as I am aware. But the bare truth is, even if you credit Akhen-aton with the purest of intentions, he still seems incredibly naïve. He’s the ne’er-do-well son who squanders the family fortune in a single generation. Egypt never quite recovered from his far-reaching experiment. If you discount Smenkh-ka-re, there were only three more rulers (Tut-ankh-amun, then his grandfather Ay—whom I think I paint as being even creepier than Akhen-aton—and finally Ay’s general, Horemheb, who wasn’t even a member of the family), by which point the 18th Dynasty was at an end and Ramesses the First had wrested control.

Michael tries to act naturally as Joan takes his photograph at the British Museum