Honor, murder, odyssey, Egypt

Books Of The Region

July 15, 2001|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

George F. Jones grew up in the Deep South, where honor was a serious matter. Face to face, pistol-holding duelists had stood as little as four paces apart.

Many years after (24 of them, teaching English literature at the University of Maryland, College Park), Jones still ponders honor. The concept, he notes in his lucid and thoughtful book, Honor Bright (Frederick C. Beil, 214 pages, $19.95), was already pres-ent far back in the pagan past.

He quotes Tacitus, Beowulf, Saxo Grammaticus to the effect that a noble death is better than a shameful life. In the Teutonic forests, a personal or collective insult must be avenged, a challenge accepted. For the male leader, life alternated between indolence and violence. He had to start out well-born or well-connected; after that, a man's "success depended more upon his own worth than upon fate or divine grace."

The Caesars (and Hannibal the Carthaginian) fought no duels, but vengeance was still pulsing in the medieval "Song of Roland."

Along came Christianity, calling instead for humility and forgiveness, and a dishonor not of outward shame but of inward guilt. Compliance would be rewarded, iniquity punished not here but in an afterlife. At first, guilt meant only debt (bad things done, good ones not done); in time, conscience and remorse piled on.

With or without religion, honor persists, though with definition problems. Currently, Jones observes, honor is mostly celebrity, wealth, respect. In "deviant honor codes," street gangs and Mafia hoodlums are quick to avenge disrespect, real or fancied.

Honor Bright would like to see honesty folded in with honor: no-no to lying, cheating and stealing; yes-yes to confronting the violator (vigilantism?) and forcing confession. As to corporate and governmental honesty and honor, the book's literary sources have nothing to say.

Jennifer Marsh, onlooker, solves crimes that stump the police, her swain the newspaper reporter, even her fellow members in "the group" (of pop-fiction writers). She does this by being observant and deductive, in the accepted manner; but how many other students of murder also give off glints of humor?

Dying to Be Murdered (Fawcett, 225 pages, $6.50 softbound), by Judy Fitzwater of Germantown, Md., is the fifth Jennifer Marsh so far, each title beginning with "Dying." This time, she joins the household of an unfriendly old woman who finds herself likely to be murdered; she pays Jennifer to hang around and spot the killer. Sure enough, that night, in the bedroom below, hideous screams and the old woman's blood, all over everything.

The setting is Macon, Ga., and one of those large, haunted, historic-district houses. "The group" aids Jennifer.

Chapter 9, with the writers in a periodic sit-around, is true to life, sympathetic and I'm-still-smiling funny.

Many a teen-age girl is surrounded by boys, fashions, sports; the heroine of Matthew Olshan's novel Finn (Bancroft, 185 pages, $19.95) attracts crises. Her father is dead; her low-life mother, court-ordered to stay away, arranges for Chloe Wilder, known also as Finn, to be kidnapped. Escaping, Finn then sets out to reunite a pregnant Mexican illegal with her boyfriend, in faraway California.

Their harried journey, by private car, police car, freight car, rowboat, taxicab and (almost) airplane without ever leaving the original metro area, includes a voyage down a shallow, yucky inner-city creek. To his credit, Olshan doesn't overdo the homage to Mark Twain. Huck Finn and Jim, on the lam downriver, don't have to worry about license-plate identification of their stolen car, as Finn and Silvia Morales must.

The book prints applause from 20 advance readers who like Finn's spunk, responsibility and sense of injustice, who admire Olshan's ability to engage both teen-age and young adult readers. Make that 21.

In 2000's Amelia Peabody novel, we left Sethos, the master criminal of Egyptian archaeology, finally captured and breathing his last; Amon-Re be praised. Or did we?

Resuscitation is as familiar a device, in thrillerdom, as the pen name; Barbara Mertz of Frederick County, known on book jackets as Elizabeth Peters, gives it a new twist. In Lord of the Silent (William Morrow, 404 pages, $25), which side (of many) is the ever-slippery Sethos now working for?

We have reached 1915; to Amelia and her husband, Emerson, the famous Egyptologist, and their retinue, the calendar signals a new digging season, even though the Turks threaten Suez on one side, the desert Senussi threaten from the other and, up and down the Nile, native nationalists threaten the British occupiers. Always, antiquities thieves lurk in the dark, which now and then produces one more corpse.

This time around, Amelia the amateur sleuth recedes a bit; much of the action centers on her equally prepossessing son Ramses and daughter-in-law Nefret. Sure and exact, the atmosphere and the excavatory byplay. Amon-Re, Ruler of Karnak, King of the Gods, Lord of the Silent.

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