In 1923 Professor Matthias Justus takes a sabbatical from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa to help the British Museum in London catalogue the historic items from the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
He never returned to Iowa, dying in London under mysterious circumstances.
Modern day reporter Rennie Haran is assigned to unravel this century-old intrigue.
So begins “Secret Passages,” a novel by R.D. Hathaway.
Within that simple premise Hathaway reveals a tale of greater purpose: A clash of class differences between the powerful and the powerless, a broad examination of history and religion, and the possibility that there are “secret passages” that illuminate the beginnings of Christianity.
The title refers to an artifact that Matthias discovers in the museum which changes the foundation of his faith, and to the manner in which Matthias and Rennie, in modern times, care for this artifact.
By way of a clever device, Rennie, after reading Matthias’ journals, finds herself taking on a physical and spiritual voyage similar to his; her own “secret passage.”
Stories with such broad intentions and grand schemes call for prose that drives the reader through the tale, building anticipation, encouraging them to ask, “what’s next.”
“Secret Passages” does not deliver such prose and the telling suffers.
The writing is pleasant enough, but too often pedantic. Descriptions lay on the page as backdrops, never attaching to character. Characters’ speech patterns are not differentiated.
“Secret Passages ” contains few precisely placed clues or red herrings that make the reading exciting. A stranger across a street or a random black car do not generate mystery.
The story runs uninterrupted with little conflict and no characters surprises: The prize which all are seeking is described in the beginning as world changing, leaving little room for doubt. The story would have been better served by leaving that pronouncement to Matthias alone.
The ending, which should have been illuminating and triumphant, was a letdown because it had been so obviously broadcast from the start.
Most disappointing of all was Rennie herself.
She is presented as an experienced reporter yet her first search for Matthias Justus was a phone call to the college in which she asks a student operator if he knows anything about a professor from the 1920s and not an Internet search. Later when asked who she is researching, she failed to know the spelling of his name.
“Secret Passages” is well researched, and for that the author is due kudos. But that deep and evocative lesson is lost in a bland telling.
I am a career award-winning journalist and the author of the four-book Frank Nagler Mystery series. Kirkus Reviews called Nagler "one of modern fiction's expertly drawn detectives." I have also written short stores, poetry, and literary fiction.