Suspense buried in the past

DRINKER OF BLOOD By Lynda Robinson The Mysterious Press 290 pp., $22

THE COURSE OF HONOR By Lindsey Davis The Mysterious Press 336 pp., $22

Quality dinner party chitchat is hard to come by these days. How can you impress that roomful of drowsy bankers and consultants in five minutes flat? Try spiking your small talk with a few dazzling allusions to antiquity.

The publishing world has a new get-cultured-quick scheme for the status-conscious: good old-fashioned mystery novels, fuel-injected with high-octane history lessons.

Two books following this trend, Drinker of Blood, by Lynda Robinson, and The Course of Honor, by Lindsey Davis, have recently been released by the Mysterious Press.

The first of these offerings is set in Egypt 3,500 years ago, the other in 2nd-century Rome.

Both authors are trained academics: Robinson has a doctorate in archaeology, and Davis is president of the Classical Association of Britain. An aura of pseudo-cerebral fluff envelops both books, but there's little chilling suspense.

The fifth in a series on King Tut's inquisitive adviser Lord Meren, "Drinker of Blood" investigates the events surrounding the unexplained death of Queen Nefertiti, the exquisite, young bride of heretical Pharoah Akhenaten.

She progressively assumes a powerful position in political life as her husband grows increasingly unpopular for zealously persecuting everyone who renounces the worship of Aten, the sun, in favor of the traditional Amun.

Alternating between flashbacks of Akhenaten's reign and that of his younger brother Tutankhamun, Robinson paints a sumptuous portrait of life along the Nile. She writes historically informed descriptions of exotic menageries of ostriches and giraffes. She engages us with idyllic scenes of family life. She captivates us.

But something is missing: a gripping mystery.

Robinson's fine writing is overshadowed by a heavy-handed effort to inform readers of the ins and outs of Egyptology. Her story is the victim, slumping to a murky, unsatisfying ending.

"The Course of Honor" also makes little more than a bow to the mystery genre. With the exception of a pithy side plot to overthrow an emperor, Davis hopes to market what is essentially a historical romance to the same audience who enjoyed her popular run of cloak-and-dagger books starring detective Marcus Didius Falco.

She portrays the tumultuous atmosphere of Rome during the regency of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and eventually Vespasian, the upstart soldier who risked his chance to become a senator, and eventually emperor, by falling for a slave named Caenis.

As Davis spins her tale, she assumes a pedantic tone. She is overtly technical in her explications of everything from the philosophical significance of architectural phenomena to diatribes on the social classes in ancient Rome. Such potentially enthralling information is presented like snippets from a textbook, not as edgy flashes of color to embellish her story.

The trouble with historical fiction that takes itself too seriously is that readers must take the information too seriously as well.

With books, we long to be transported, to be consumed by another time, another identity. This is why we love to embark upon the thrilling journey of reading. The problem with these historical whodunits is that the whodunit often plays second fiddle to the favored role of ancient history primer.

*Elisabetta Coletti is a Monitor intern.

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