James Patterson’s The Murder of King Tut

This was a disappointing read, since I had wanted more details on Patterson’s research and thoughts about the evidence supporting that Tutankhamen was killed. While I wasn’t expecting a work of historical scholarship, I did not anticipate that he was going to dramatize his interpretation of this slice of Egyptian history. This would have been fine, but I will be honest and admit that I wasn’t in the mood for it. Especially since the writing style is clipped, with a Dick and Jane cadence. I do not care for it.

There were two reasons I did not like the book. The first is that Patterson talks up his research. Due to the exposition style, it was unclear how much research he had done, compared to pure invention. I don’t mean that Patterson did not get the dates and major events right, but since drama requires a bit more flavor, there are certainly liberties he took with constructing the details of Egyptian life. The dialogue is one example; the thoughts and motivations he ascribes to the pharoah, queen, and the court functionaries are another. However, this wouldn’t be so bad if the pieces of research leading to his thesis, that King Tut was murdered, wasn’t so weak.

The weakness in the evidence and the long build-up make up the second fault. As far as I could tell, Patterson calls this a homicide based on a cranial wound (as determined from CT scans of the mummy skull), the elevation of 3 pharoahs from Tut’s court, and the small tomb and lack of hieroglyphic records of Tut. The fresh piece of evidence is in fact the head wound. The rest of the evidence had been known, and certainly the circumstances described does not rule out murder. The fact that following Tut, all three subsequent rulers came from his court is consistent with foul play. First, Tut’s wife/sister succeeded him, then his court advisor, then his general. Human ambition being what it is, one can construct all sorts of stories about Tut’s wife and the court advisor. The lack of mention in the hieroglyphic record may be due to incompleteness in the the record, although it could also be interpreted as the systematic obliteration of Tut’s legacy. Burying Tut in a small tomb also could indicate carelessness, and at least diffidence in how the pharaoh was laid to rest. But it might just mean that Tut was not liked. Or it could mean the murder was going through the motions of the burial. But then why would the murdered line the small tomb with treasure? One might think the head wound would prove crucial to Patterson’s case that tips the theory in favor of murder.

Yet Patterson, in his dramatization, documents the wound as stemming from a chariot fall. Hmm. And, during the assassination scene, the killer supposedly suffocated the pharaoh (fine, that was fiction. I suppose Patterson found it to be weird to have the killer strike the pharaoh on the exact spot injured from the fall – there was only a single wound to the head.) So the smashing new bits of insight wasn’t even used to weave a consistent story regarding the murder of Tut. That I found strange. The lead up to the supposed new piece of evidence did not pay off. That would be fine for any writer but Patterson: he is a writer of detective stories. Are his other books so poorly tied together?

Although I had been expecting something a bit more serious (it certainly makes for good copy for a detective story writer to do a bit of crime investigation), the fact that the historical tidbits were translated into a story didn’t bother me, in and of itself. Yes, there are issues concerning the provenance of each detail, but as a whole, it works as one amateur’s interpretation of how Egypt’s ruling class lived. At some point, with the difficulty in translating hieroglyphics and the length of time separating us from the pharaohs, a scholar’s educated reconstruction of how these Egyptians lived may not fair any better than what Patterson can invent based on his research.

There were also other minor problems. Patterson wove three stories together: the story of the pharaohs, Patterson’s modern day research, and Howard Carter’s excavation of Egypt and his finding Tut’s tomb. Patterson, on two occasions, wrote of Carter’s removal from active excavation, and merely alluded to Carter’s personality clashes with his superiors. But somehow, Patterson did not recount the details of the arguments that led to Carter’s removal. He simply just wrote that Carter was about to flout the wrong people… and left it at that.

So, the major problem was that Patterson played up the historical research he and his co-author performed. It may have been submerged into the background details of the pharaoh’s story. But Patterson didn’t describe in clear terms what new evidence he had, and the story he wrote differed in interpretation, but not substance, from what was already known. And given the circumstantial evidence surrounding Tut’s tomb and succession, it seems strange that no one had posited that Tut was murdered, as Patterson seems to be suggesting.

  1. Nick said:

    This is really a response to your Wages of Wins comment that responded to mine:

    Apparently, I’ve missed a lot during the weekend.


    You state:

    “As for IS and Nick’s idea that there are in fact intangibles that do not lead to better box scores. I can pose pretty much the same questions.”

    I cannot speak for IS but this idea was never my idea.

    To recap:

    In this thread, I was making a simple point. Berri was making a fuss that Thorpe had measured “intangibles” which, Berri states, by definition cannot be measured.

    In fact, Thorpe didn’t measure intangibles. He didn’t tabulate a quantity. He used a point system to express his evaluation of the intangibles, but he didn’t measure them.

    Berri was apparently confused by the numbers, however, since he stated:

    “But it’s odd to see someone assign a number to something that by definition, isn’t tangible.”

    The error here is that Berri appears to think that use of numbers always implies measurement. It does not.

    So Berri’s criticism on that point (that Thorpe had measured something that cannot be measured) was off. Thorpe had done no such thing.

    My point went no further, and I certainly wasn’t defending Thorpe’s larger point about the importance of intangibles when evaluating a player’s productivity. In fact, I stated:

    “I think it’s perfectly fair to say that evaluating intangibles isn’t likely the best way to identify the most productive player on the court because intangible things like hustle or leadership do not have any great effect on productivity outside of what is already translated into the box score. I’d agree with that for the most part.”

    So generally that was a fine comment on your part, but it didn’t respond to mine. IS and I are talking about different things.

    Your comment missed that.

    • notimetoread said:

      This seems like a random comment on my blog, but it’s a response Nick has graciously cross posted on this site, which allows me to refer back to the original post and get some more eyeballs here.

      I apologize to Nick; as I review my comment on Dave Berri’s Wages of Wins blog, I realized that I wasn’t being clear enough in writing about how basketball analysis can encompass observations that may be difficult to measure or to quantify, but can in fact be evaluated and described in a rigorous and systematic way. I believe this last point was addressed within the reply at WoW blog. There is another point that occurred to me, so thank you, Nick.

      I am not sure if Berri was confused or made an error in thinking that numbers always imply measurement. Sure, in the strictest sense, you can simply use numbers in the nominal sense: to name something. In that sense, Thorpe probably wanted to work within his framework and gave an arbitrary number that reflected how he felt about the intangibles Melo and Durant brought (i.e. Melo brought more to the table than Durant).

      I think Berri’s problem is where that evaluation came from. (And the following is for other readers’ benefit, since you clearly understand the distinction between ranking and measuring.) You can perform statistical analysis on data that are binned into assigned categories. These tests fall under “non-parametric statistics.” One example might be, “State your satisfaction for this new cola: 0 = extremely dissatisfied to 10 = extremely satisfied”. In this case, you would wind up with a “score” that isn’t really a measurement, but is an expression of, in essence, a subjective opinion. But a test subject would answer more than one of these questions, and one can operate on these data to see if in fact a group of subjects is satisfied. I’m sure Berri is aware of this type of data and analysis.

      I think Berri’s problem is that for something to pass as analysis, it ought to encompass more than some vague feeling you have. Look at the problem from a different perspective: If Berri posted WP48 scores for 2 players, one around .150 and the other around .250, and he simply said, well, the intangibles player 1 offers (he of the 0.150 score) make him equal to the value of the second player, you’d question what intangibles he was looking at. You’d want something more to explain why he felt he thought the scores needed to be modified and why the performance scores were not enough. And if Berri did in fact write about which factors he considered, wouldn’t you want to know the importance he placed on each factor? This type of analysis is not numerical; it just lays assumptions bare so that all of us can consider the argument fully. There is nothing wrong with this type of analysis. As a matter of fact, Berri does this all the time, especially when discussing why players have not performed as well currently than in the past (age and injury are standard justifications, but eminently reasonable and most readers here seem to agree with these reasons.)

      Basically, I thought that Berri was just being sarcastic, riffing on the fact that Thorpe actually didn’t make his “intangibles” argument substantial enough.

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