The latest thriller by Tom Knox, The Deceit, is set in Cornwall and Egypt. This combination alone was enough to make me want to read it. Both are extremely evocative, mystery-filled, beautiful but potentially frightening landscapes. The two together within the pages of one book is an intriguing, very attractive mix. Knox does, of course, know this very well.
The story itself revolves around two mysteries, one involving the discovery of a hoard of documents from the deserts of Egypt, a Coptic treasure reminiscent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the other has something to do with a cruel and ancient cult revolving around cats.
Karen Trevithick, a police detective from London, is called back to Cornwall to bury her mother. She welcomes the distraction when a friend suggests she keep herself busy by helping her to investigate a bizarre local event involving the deaths of many cats and a young man. Meanwhile, Ryan Harper, an Egyptologist who turned his back on ambition following the death of his young wife in childbirth, finds a purpose in following the trail that led his old tutor Victor Sassoon to his death in the desert next to a bag full of ancient documents.
For much of The Deceit, the two stories trace their separate paths, seemingly united only by Egyptian themes of mummified cats, Gnosticism and ancient religions, frightening rituals, which oddly do not seem too out of place on the Cornish moors. Both stories are very absorbing with characters who have a depth to them – including Karen and her daughter, Ryan and Helen a filmmaker, who will document his search for why Sassoon died as he did. The characters are matched by the environments. Egypt is not just the land of the Pharaohs and the pyramids, it is also home to the last Gnostics, who exist in extreme poverty and peril, abandoned by the rest of society. Cornwall and, later, suburban London also hide something very frightening below the veneer of beauty, wealth and civilisation.
The problem comes when the two stories converge and what had been a dark and frightening thriller, difficult to put down, becomes a melodrama. I expect to be asked to believe the unbelievable when I read a thriller – the escapism is a large part of their appeal – but I had my powers of disbelief tested to their very limit here. Aside from the coincidences and the dramatic contrivances that I found hard not to resent, the conclusion was, for me, a complete let down and very disappointing.
I recently read The Babylonian Rite by Tom Knox, the end of which made me feel exactly the same. Knox, clearly a clever writer, has found a formula that works for him and succeeds for many readers but, for me, the thrill of the ride for the first two thirds of the book is ruined by the fall into the disappointing and unbelievable conventions of the final third. Knox likes to shock but I believe that his characters are too well-written for what he has happen to them. No doubt I will be tempted to read his next thriller and again I will hope that the end lives up to the beginning but that may well be for the last time. One might argue that I expect a great deal from thrillers but I would suggest that that is no bad thing to expect from any genre.