These are dark days. I was in London when the results of the referendum came out. I was still reeling with shock and dismay that afternoon when I went to the Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition at the British Museum. For an hour and a half I lost myself in this wonderful exhibition.
The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile and were buried under the sea for over a thousand years. Underwater excavation has been taking place over the last twenty years. Objects in the exhibition range from colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. I was moved by the serenity and beauty of some of the figures which, like the one in foreground of this photo, fused Greek and Egyptian styles. I was fascinated by the sacred offerings and ritual objects related to the cult of Osiris – the god of the underworld. I came out feeling that I had escaped for a while and visited one of the great civilisations of the past. And I remembered that all things pass after all.
On the way home I stopped off at Hatchard’s and treated myself to another form of escapism. I bought Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin and spent the journey back to Chesterfield in the company of an old friend, John Rebus. There’s not much that can’t be made better by a good book or the consolation of art.
It is a feature of crime fiction as a genre that a lot of writers are expected to produce a book a year, often featuring the same detective. It’s not surprising that some of these series get a little tired and even the sainted Agatha wasn’t exempt from this. I’ve just read one of her later novels, At Bertram’s Hotel, and, sad to say, it is pretty thin stuff. It was published in 1965, a full forty-five years after her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. By then Christie herself was 75. Her last novels are really not up to much in comparison with her dazzling prime. That isn’t to say that crime-writers can’t write successfully in old age: look at P. D. James. However P. D. James doesn’t write a novel a year, and other writers who have maintained the quality of their work by letting the time stretch out between books include Martin Cruz Smith and Sue Grafton. I found myself musing on this as I read Ian Rankin’s new novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible. He is one of those writers who does pretty much produce a book a year, but the standard shows no sign of slipping. Exit Music was supposed to be the last Rebus novel, but Rankin did not make the mistake of killing him off, so letting him return from retirement hasn’t been too problematic. It is rather surprising though that Rebus is in such good form, considering the quantities of fags, alcohol and junk he has consumed over the years. Does a vegetable or a piece of fruit never pass his lips? In this novel he finds himself teamed up with the teetotal Malcolm Fox, Rankin’s new series character, who has appeared in two novels of his own. He is am much a straight arrow as Rebus is a maverick. That’s fun, as is the development of Rubus’s friendship with Siobhan Clarke, once his protogee and now his senior. The novel’s intricately plotted, and there’s some terrific dialogue. Perhaps it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Rankin’s best – The Falls is my favourite – it’s still a very good read.