If you’ve ever travelled to Egypt, The Lost Americans by Christopher Bollen will take you back there. At least it had that effect on me. And, if you’ve never been there, when you finish this fast-paced thriller, you may feel as if you’ve made the trip. The Sahara dust settling on everything, the smells of baking bread and dirty camels, the competing cries of the muezzins, the golden, dust-laden light of late afternoon, and the vicious, inches-to-spare traffic.
Manhattanite Cate Castle has never visited Egypt, so Cairo is all new to her, overlaid with a pall of grief and anxiety after the shock of her older brother’s death. He reportedly died in a fall from his hotel room balcony. Visiting the country on business, Eric was not yet 40 and working for a boutique international arms supplier called Polaris. Egypt was one of his company’s best customers.
Back in New York, Eric’s death doesn’t sit right with Cate. She doesn’t believe the official line that her brother committed suicide and insists on asking questions. She even enlists the aid of a retired forensic pathologist to examine his body. Defensive wounds. Injuries on both sides of his head. These wouldn’t happen if he were killed in a fall. Not to mention that his room in the Ramses Sands Hotel was only on the third floor. A fall from that height would likely be survivable. If you think Cate is becoming a little obsessed, you’ll also agree she has plenty of reason to be – especially when Polaris offers her family a multi-million-dollar settlement.
Thus, the trip to Egypt. Cate is a fundraiser for an arts organisation, not any sort of investigator, but what she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in motivation. Where to start that won’t get her in trouble? Let’s just say that she doesn’t need to go looking for it. From the moment Cate sets foot in the Cairo airport, it seems she’s in danger, and the pace of the novel never slackens.
She’s to be met by the nephew of a New York acquaintance, a meeting that’s almost hijacked by another young man who tries to force her into a car. At her hotel, an attractive stranger – an arms broker from Amsterdam – tries rather transparently to ingratiate himself. Their conversations range into the morality and pitfalls of international arms dealing. Everyone seems to be lying to her, including Eric’s former work colleagues, his boss’s wife, the hotel staff, Eric’s embassy contact… It’s a cinch they’re not telling her everything.
Surely, she can trust the nephew? She shows him a postcard her brother mailed the day he died. With its picture of a sunny Jamaica beach maybe it’s a bit flimsy to be considered evidence. But she’s learned that, with Polaris’s incessant monitoring of employee internet activity, emails, messages and phone calls, a postcard might be the securest way for employees to send messages. Hiding in plain sight. Too bad the postcard’s words make no more sense than the Jamaica reference. “See, you were right,” it says.
There’s one bright spot: The nephew knows which little Jamaica-themed shop it came from.
Cate stays busy finding people to interview and doesn’t spend much time sightseeing. But the sights and exoticism of Egypt are all around her. Her Grand Nile hotel is on the banks of one of the world’s longest rivers, which not only cleaves the country, it makes it possible – a few miles east or west is basically desert. To someone like Cate, who grew up in the rural, sylvan Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts, the compression of so many people, so much living and so much history into this narrow strip of land feels almost claustrophobic.
Bollen has an admirable literary writing style. He conveys ideas and feelings in ways that are both inventive and quite on point. He never lapses into a trite way of describing what Cate is seeing and thinking. From that standpoint and the fact that he’s willing to assume some cultural awareness on the part of his readers, the writing stands out. From time to time there is too much backstory and I did wonder now and again about Cate’s plausibility is as a female protagonist. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but maybe there is a minor issue there.
However, it does nothing to diminish the strength of this novel. The Lost Americans is a well-conceived, extremely evocative thriller that respects the reader’s intellect. I liked it a lot.
Also try Lea O’Hara’s small-town Japan novels or Deepti Kapoor’s contemporary New Delhi thriller, Age of Vice.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars