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The Africa of this book, which is the fifth in Lyn Hamilton's series about an antique store owner with a penchant for getting herself involved in mysterious doings with archeological overtones, refers to Tunisia. This is a paperback reprint of last year's hardcover of the same title, from the same publisher.
Tunisia is located the top of the African continent, hence has some Mediterranean shoreline; the country lies between Algeria to the left (or West) and Libya to the right (or East). Also this area in ancient times was called Tunis, a name which for the Romans was virtually synonymous with its main city, Carthage. As the handy chronology at the beginning of the book tells us, another name for Carthage is Qart Hadash. Now the country is primarily Muslim and so is its architecture. Evidence of earlier civilizati ons lies in ruins.
Unfortunatey neither the author's chronology, nor the text itself, answers a question I've wondered about since high school: If it's Tunis with a T, then why are the Punic Wars spelled with a P? I can't fault Ms. Hamilton for that because I've asked the same thing of everybody when it came up (which I admit hasn't been often) since Sister Gabriel, who taught both ancient history and Latin, specifically Virgil, and she didn't know either. By the way, there is a very famous quotation from Virgil at the beginning of THE AFRICAN QUEST. Sister Gabriel would have disagreed with the translation of "arma" as "war", but why quibble. It makes more sense to a modern reader as "war."
Remember Hannibal and the elephants over the Alps? That was the second Punic war. Hannibal's father was named Hamilcar. His grandfather, or great-grandfather, was named Bomilcar. THE AFRICAN QUEST has sections set in ancient times interspersed with the main mystery set in our contemporary time, and the ancient sections are full of names like Hamilcar and Bomilcar, and much dashing about on the waves of the Mediterranean (and under them), not by the Romans but by an earlier much more seafaring people, the Phoenicians.
To eventually solve the mysteries (yes, there's more than one), our main character, Lara McClintoch, must tie the crimes that occur in her own time together with the ancient ones. It's quite a feat, in which she is aided by an archeologist with the unlikely but memorable name of Professor Briars Hatley. Having a memorable name is helpful in a story that involves many principal players, any one of whom could have done the dastardly deeds. The author informs us straight out, in an opening paragraph, that she is going to tell us a story that involves obsession and greed, so I say "dastardly deeds" advisedly.
The plot sets off in a way reminsicent of Agatha Christie: Lara's partner at her antique store suggests they sponsor a guided tour, with Lara as the antiques expert. They choose Tunisia as the country the tour will visit. It just happens that Lara's ex-husband Clive Swain is her business partner (he's also her best friend's lover -- either part of this situation would bother me no end but apparently Lara can live with both), and Tunisia was where they went on their honeymoon. So she remembers it well and bears the country no grudges, has no wariness about encountering memories that will make her unhappy. Instead, Lara is enthusiastic and sets about assembling the cast of characters while Clive stays home. The entire company of characters, the way they are described and interact at first meeting, does make the reader anticipate something Christy-ish to follow.
However, banish the thought from your mind, because this plot is nothing remotely like Dame Agatha's puzzles. Rather, it is as adorned and convoluted as ... as an Oriental carpet. There's a bit of magic too, here and there, in the writing.
The group gets to Tunisia intact, and on their very first night at a charming small hotel, following a banquet at which the various relationships and personalities are established, a valuable gold necklace is stolen. As in a locked-room mystery, it's pretty clear the thief must be one of the tour
group, because no one else is at the hotel except the staff, quickly exonerated. Much worse doings will soon follow, and who-done-it is a mystery indeed.
By this point we have already had a couple of the sections (printed in italics, so we readers won't get confused) that take place at a much earlier time in history, so we know there will be not only the hunt for antiques, along with crimes in the present to be solved, but something odd out of
history is also going on. These historical sections continue to be interwoven, sometimes more skilfully than others, throughout the book. I found the italics distracting and hard on the eyes, which is Berkely's fault and not the author's.
THE AFRICAN QUEST is a light mystery (some would say "cozy") that could easily have been much sterner stuff, but that is not what readers of this series, or Berkely Prime Crime fans in general, would expect or appreciate. There is no blood and gore, no serial killers or any approaching that ilk.
Though there is a teenager named Chastity who ... but no, I won't go there.
Instead of the heavy stuff, we have many vivid, colorful descriptions of the Tunisian atmosphere, of the wonderful textiles and birdcages, mosques and minarets, bazaars and ... you get the picture. Also we have much interesting light archeological detail and history to go along with it. There's an
ancient shipwreck -- what could be more intriguing? To the author's credit, she has linked everything together in such a fashion that to give more specifics would be to give away the surprises of the plot.
THE AFRICAN QUEST is a satisfying, fast read that will keep your mind off the real world for one whole evening at least, and that's not at all bad.
Reviewed by Ava D. Day, January 2002
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