There are some authors whose work I am unable to wait for patiently. The days stretch on and the publication seems as distant as ever until finally it’s so close you hit refresh on Amazon repeatedly to check the status of your preorder. Paul Sussman is one of these writers.
It’s difficult to know how to classify his novels – of which there have now been four. Ostensibly, they’re thrillers and archaeological quests but that doesn’t sum them up. The thriller aspect is almost incidental despite the books being as pageturnery as you could desire. Instead, in The Labyrinth of Osiris, Sussman presents us with a portrait of two great cities – Jerusalem and Luxor – that is so enriched with the sights, smells, sounds and prayers of these most charismatic and complex of places, that you know you are reading the words of a man, both journalist and archaeologist, who knows them inside out. Paul Sussman understands these cities; his characters, Arieh Ben-Roe a detective in Jerusalem and Yusuf Khalifa a policeman in Luxor, are utterly real. As an archaeologist myself, who lived for some time in Jerusalem and the deserts of Israel and frequently travelled to Egypt, The Labyrinth of Osiris brings it all flooding back.
The Labyrinth of Osiris was well worth the wait and, while I would recommend that you read the previous three books as well (The Lost Army of Cambyses, The Last Secret of the Temple and The Hidden Oasis), this one stands alone as Sussman’s masterpiece.
Characters come and go in Sussman’s novels but Khalifa and Ben-Roe are men we have met before and here are reunited in an investigation, five years after one saved the life of the other. During these five years events have moved on for our two policeman – Ben-Roe is now an expectant father, making all the mistakes that he wishes he wouldn’t make, while Khalifa is dealing with a family tragedy that has sliced into his heart. Both of them have to cope with police systems that aren’t always conducive to good detection. Distinctly cool relations between their two nations don’t help, but Khalifa and Ben-Roe have a bond that cuts through religious and cultural differences. Both men are also extraordinarily brave and immensely likeable and it is such a pleasure to make their re-acquaintance on such perfectly written pages.
The mystery at the heart of The Labyrinth of Osiris is not straightforward, as no mystery in a Paul Sussman novel is. While its origins lie in an ancient Egyptian gold mine, lost in the eastern desert, its ramifications are far more extensive. Beginning with the murder of a ‘difficult’ journalist in an Armenian Cathedral in Jerusalem, the investigations unearth a network of crime and abuse, covering the full strata of Near Eastern and Western society and business and encompassing the world’s oldest sins.
The Labyrinth of Osiris is possibly the least ‘archaeological thrillery’ of Sussman’s novels. Instead, it is a penetrating and deeply emotional portrait of two men, so different in a multitude of ways, but who are brought together in the cruellest of circumstances. The secrets they uncover are not easy to stomach. Both men put their lives in danger and both are prepared to do anything for what is right and to find justice for the many unfortunates they encounter, including some very close to home. But there is also humour, warmth and vitality and the novel is full of life. Luxor and Jerusalem are wonderfully realised, both the tourist version and the other.
The story is excellent. It is such an exciting novel. It is also a substantial one. The Labyrinth of Osiris is one of those books that rewards a slow reading. You won’t want to take it too quickly – Arieh and Yusuf are men you want to get to know. There are others too who fill the pages and the result is rich, luxurious, sometimes frightening, even terrifyingly claustrophobic, and you’ll find it very hard to put down.
How devastating, then, that Paul Sussman should have died in May this year, aged just 45, only weeks before the publication of The Labyrinth of Osiris. It is a marvellous novel, one he was understandably proud of, but, when you close the final page, reeling from its revelations, there is great sorrow in knowing that there can be no more, not least because the last is so remarkable. The loss is immense.