Napoleon’s Pyramids by William Dietrich Review

The initial appearance of the pulp hero in the newspapers, radio shows and cinema of 1920s America was a reassuring affirmation of rugged American individualism in a world that, in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, seemed suddenly large and uncertain. America’s gradual acceptance of an increasingly multicultural world can be seen in the pulp revivals that followed. The campy, tongue-in-cheek revivals of pulp characters such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the 1970s had become by the 1980s and 90s outright humor, as the Indiana Jones series and later Evil Dead films let audiences know that it was okay not to take their pulp heroes’ antics too seriously. Indeed, the self-awareness brought on by globalization made it impossible to do so.

Which speaks to the principal problem with Napoleon’s Pyramids, William Dietrich’s pulpy new historical thriller. Set during Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, pyramids are present but this book is best understood as a four-sided construction of a different sort, a dialogue between those original pulp hero adventures of the 1920s, the late 18th-century era of the tale’s setting, and both the fact and fiction of the present day. While not without some pleasures, Napoleon’s Pyramids is never quite successful at erecting a stable edifice from these different sides. The unrelenting sincerity of its dated pulp sensibility is not only painful to read in itself, but actively works against the other, more thoughtful elements of the novel.

I’m the expert on women. You hold the rifle.
(p. 273)

Poster boy for this is Ethan Gage, the first-person protagonist of the book. Gage, a wholly fictional character amidst many historical figures, is a prototype of the gentleman adventurer pulp hero: he comes from a well-to-do family; studied two years at Harvard before leaving due to impatience with “debates over questions for which there is no answer;” and spent the balance of his 33 years traveling, gambling, learning to shoot, and building an import/export business. He is the period archetype of the ruggedly individualistic, self-made American man.

Now an American in Paris in the years following the French Revolution, Gage wins an ancient Egyptian medallion in a card game. When he refuses to relinquish the medallion to an oily former aristocrat tied to a fringe Masonic sect, he is quickly framed for the murder of a prostitute and finds himself on the run. To escape the authorities, Gage uses his own Masonic connections and his familiarity with the new science of electricity to insert himself into the group of scholarly savants accompanying Napoleon Bonaparte in France’s invasion of Egypt. As Gage travels through France to reach Napoleon’s fleet, and then journeys in Egypt with the savants as part of the invasion, it becomes clear that the medallion he carries is desired by many, including Napoleon himself, as the key needed to unlock the mysteries of ancient Egyptian knowledge and conquering power.

This clarity arrives slowly: as a first-person narrator, Gage has the fatal flaw of being self-absorbed but not self-aware. We can almost feel his mind overheating in a crisis of identity as on one page he wonders what he’s doing in the company of all these French savants, and on another ponders that “because I was a savant, I would have expected my mind would remain occupied with loftier things [than the opposite sex], but it didn’t seem to work that way.” Indeed, throughout Napoleon’s Pyramids Gage’s chief source of identity is his American long-rifle, with (it is repeatedly mentioned) its longer barrel than the French equivalents. Devoid of any sense of humor or irony, and with the story lacking the genre deconstruction that could have made his role interesting, Gage is left dreadfully earnest uttering such lines as those quoted above, and worse.

“And now I’m back, with rifle and tomahawk,” I said, in order to say something. “I’m not afraid of Silano.”

Gage is joined in his journey by the standard accoutrements of the pulp hero: the less physically-fit, more cerebral sidekick/mentor figure; an honorable native warrior-guide; and the beguilingly mysterious native woman, powerless in the world of men but for her sex appeal. Together they strive to uncover the secrets of the medallion before those secrets fall into the wrong hands — those wrong hands embodied on one hand by the aforementioned oily aristocrat and his Arab henchman (who carries a snake-headed staff, so you know he’s evil), and on the other by the cold, mechanical ambition of Napoleon. Although Gage, it must be said, spends more time mulling how he’ll benefit from the whole affair, and trying to make his female companion like him.

The ruling caste simply could not believe that technology was bringing its reign to an end.

This is a shame because Gage’s juvenile self-absorption masks what could have been a fascinating historical travelogue. Napoleon’s Pyramids positions Gage as likely the first American to visit Egypt, yet his comments show none of the sense of age and history that one familiar with only the cities of America (at best scores of years old in 1798) and France (at best hundreds) might be expected to feel when encountering locations such as Cairo; show none of the alien otherness of a first experience with a non-Christian, non-European culture; show none of the vastness and wonder of the desert setting. “Sand hissed over the top of sculpted dunes like an undulating sheet,” Gage reports of the journey between Alexandria and Cairo, and says no more about dunes or sand. There is also a sameness to many descriptions: several cities are “dirty” and “disappointing.” Considering the quantity of words that Dietrich spends on these exotic locales, it is the overall level of description that is disappointing.

What Gage (and Dietrich) do describe well are large-scale military battles, three of which figure prominently in the book. There is a mix here of historical moment — Napoleon’s campaign was the beginning of the end for the Ottoman Empire — strategy and tactics, technological and cultural clash, and pure visual spectacle. In these moments, if nowhere else in the book, the pulp sensibilities of Gage-the-narrator and the historical appreciation of Dietrich-the-author can work together.

Once again the Arab army’s heart was the Mamelukes, mounted cavalry now ten thousand strong. Their horses were superb Arabians and richly harnessed, their riders a kaleidoscope of robes and silks, their turbans topped with egret and peacock feathers, and their helmets gilded with gold. They were armed with a museum’s worth of beautiful and dated weapons.

Students of history will realize that there is also an unsaid element of irony to be found here. Less than a century later, in the Franco-Prussian War, it would famously be the French with their beautifully colored uniforms, and antiquated weaponry and tactics, who would fall quickly before an opponent’s onslaught.

Victory is sometimes more untidy than battle. An assault can be simplicity itself; administration an entangling nightmare.
(p. 101)

To his credit, Dietrich does take up the matter of current parallels in world affairs, as history repeats itself anew. Again a Western nation has achieved a quick military victory via superior technology over a Middle Eastern country in an ostensible effort to liberate it from an oppressive minority rule; again that Western nation has found it more difficult than anticipated to consolidate its victory and to rally native support. That it is now America who owns the military victory and France who is a conspicuous outside observer merely completes the irony.

However, once again Gage as a pulp character is his author’s enemy in articulating this forward-looking perspective. Gage’s self-absorption is such that to convey such thinking, Dietrich must resort to breaking point-of-view in passages that feel like an author too-cutely pointing out his own cleverness. Ruminates Gage after a river battle between boats decided by cannonball:

Expensive rifles like mine will someday change all this, I suppose, and warfare shall devolve into men groping in the mud for cover. What glory murder? Indeed, I wondered what war would be like if savants did all the aiming and every bomb and bullet hit. But this, of course, is a fanciful notion that will forever be impossible.

In other pages of Napoleon’s Pyramids, various secondary characters explain to Gage how he can’t expect the Egyptian natives to thankfully modernize and adopt the Western advances of their invaders, even if it means “liberation” from their Ottoman rulers. The difficulty is that these explaining characters are Mamelukes and Greeks, two of Egypt’s historical oppressors. There is thus again the sense that it is Dietrich rather than his characters speaking to us, and it is again caused by the fact that Gage himself is not a thoughtful enough protagonist to engage with these ideas — even when his own nation was so recently formed based on the principle of self-governance.

[Masonry] plays with ancient mysticism and arcane mathematical precepts.
(p. 22)

Masonic rites, Knights Templar, the Ark of the Covenant, the idea that the Holy Grail might not be a cup, the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci sequence…Napoleon’s Pyramids at times feels like a who’s who of recent archaeological thrillers (there are several brief, wholly extraneous references to ideas from The Da Vinci Code that could have easily been trimmed). Strip away all the name-dropping, though, and the actual plot of the book just isn’t strong enough, isn’t thrilling enough, to hang the other elements of the story on. The first-person narration removes any degree of tension; we know that Gage will survive. As for the mystery, what exactly the medallion is and why people want it are uncomfortably vague for the first half of the book; what it unlocks is uncomfortably vague for the second half. Does it represent power, immortality, a cure for ED?

Indeed, there is a pervasive quality of cobbled-together vagueness in the mystery that drives the book’s plot. It is as if Dietrich himself can’t quite visualize what’s going on once the tale abandons its historical grounding. As a result, blatant research and logistical issues crop up here, in the thriller portion of the book, that were not present in the historical aspects. An explanation of the Fibonacci sequence takes up several pages of the book; unfortunately, an explanation of the connection between the Fibonacci sequence and the eventual solution to the mystery (for there is one) is bizarrely absent. The constellation Draco, which had wings until 600BC, is depicted in its modern snaky form on Gage’s medallion, created c. 2500BC. And in one crucial sequence, Gage counts up the rows of the pyramid’s stones from the base when logically he would have needed to count down from the top. In other thrillers, vagueness of plot and small inconsistencies in execution are quickly swept into the background by pacing. Here, the combination of historical detail and Gage’s pulpish need to have everything explained to him by various savants results in a slower pace than thriller fans will be happy with. Again, the story elements are working against each other.

This trend continues through the book’s unsatisfying, inconclusive ending. While Gage is entreated constantly by those around him to grow, to become more aware, in the end — in true pulp fashion — it is his dogged American persistence that outsmarts the intellectuals, defeats the warriors, charms the woman. But always, the conservatism of the pulp hero works against the wider historical perspective that the novel tries to evoke, just as the ponderous self-absorption of the protagonist slows the pace needed to maintain a thriller. How can this conflict in story types be resolved? It can’t, and thus Dietrich offers up only a placeholder with that ultimate invention of 1920s pulp: to be continued.

Given pulp’s origins in national uncertainty, it should be no surprise to see elements of it making a comeback now. But while history may seem to repeat, America is not the same nation it was in the 1920s — we’ve gained an element of global awareness that will not quickly be erased. Napoleon’s Pyramids illustrates the incompatibility of the original pulp sensibility with that new worldliness. Hopefully in his sequels, Dietrich will take a larger step towards learning from pulp’s past, rather than being content to repeat it.

– originally published 3/30/2007

Matt Denault has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston.