It is easy to see how The Witch of Babylon, D.J. McIntosh’s novel of intrigue and antiquities, won the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award and was short listed for Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award even though it is the author’s first full length novel. Not only is it bristling with action and danger set against the landscapes of posh New York art circles and blasted Middle Eastern war zones, but it also delves deeply in to the ancient world of the Mesopotamians, and into the always shadowy realm of alchemy and transmutation.
Manhattan art dealer John Madison is still reeling from the aftereffects of an automobile accident that took the life of his beloved brother and father figure, renowned archeologist and antiquities scholar Samuel Diakos. Although John’s physical wounds have healed, he still is hazy on the details of the accident and bears a heavy guilt that Samuel’s death may have been his fault. But life does not stop for one man’s grief, and John needs to pay his mounting bills, so he elects to attend the soiree of an old childhood friend who owes him money for services rendered but keeps ducking his phone calls.
By the time the evening is over, however, the friend is dead and a course of events is set in motion that will not only have John suspected of foul play, but also the target of the true murderers who believe that he must know the whereabouts of an ancient Mesopotamian tablet smuggled into the country after the sacking of Baghdad at the fall of Saddam Hussein. Not only is the tablet valuable in and of itself, but the inscription it carries is rumored to hold a secret that will bring the bearer incalculable wealth and power.
In the days that follow, John will be hunted, betrayed, swept into conspiracies and manipulated by shadowy power players, threatened, imprisoned – and driven. Driven to protect those who he feels he has unwittingly drawn into danger, and to protect the memory of Samuel, whose clandestine actions in Baghdad in 2003 set the current events in motion. As he moves through days filled with trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, we meet many other characters drawn into his search for answers, some of whom are wondrously familiar (such as the feral-catlike art critics and historians who make up John’s professional contact list), exotic (especially the platinum blonde, blue-eyed vixen Eris, with a killer body and a horde of poisons to match), and impassioned (Iraqi brothers Tomas and Ari, one looking to herald ancient glories, and the other to try to right modern wrongs). In the end, though, the truth – and who holds the truth – seems as hidden and puzzling as the search for the tablet, itself.
Author McIntosh certainly has done her research. She passionately delves into the history and impact of the ancient Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians (who predominantly make up the Mesopotamian culture), not only on the Middle East but on world culture both past and present. (On her website, McIntosh relates how she became fascinated with Mesopotamian history after researching creation myths, and was “surprised they have been so little written about, in thrillers at least.”) I will admit that there were a few times in The Witch of Babylon that my eyes glazed over a bit as the historical or cultural exposition seemed to go into a droning lecture-mode, and times when names and accomplishments got a bit overwhelming, but that didn’t deter me from gleaning what I needed in order to fully enjoy the import of what was happening in the story.
There were some aspects of the book that I struggled with – the title, for one. Although the Witch of Babylon (by association: the Whore of Babylon, the goddess Ishtar) figures into the story, it seems almost incidental. I kept expecting more of a tie in, and found myself stretching for associations (“it turns out, this character’s mother was a practicing witch – that has to mean something, doesn’t it?”) but generally all these efforts led to dead ends. This kind of ambiguity showed up elsewhere in the text; exasperating snippets of detail inserted into the story in an apparent effort to paint a particular atmosphere or elicit a certain mood, but disrupting the flow of the narrative, undermining the reader’s immersion into the action taking place.
Also, some characters at the start of the novel tend come across as stilted; placed to turn the plot rather than developing into enhancing the plot. Especially troubling for me was the character of John’s boyhood “friend”, Hal, who apparently came to hate John so much that, after belatedly realizing that stealing the tablet from Samuel’s safekeeping would make him a target, concocted a supremely difficult set of puzzles for John, daring him from the grave to “do the right thing” and find the tablet in order to return it to Iraq – if he could find it before the assassins did. Explicate Hal’s penchant for games all you want, it still seems fantastical that a man who has just lost his job, has no money due to a hardcore drug addiction, is in the crosshairs of murderers and whose life is crashing around him, would take the time to create a mind-numbing set of hoops for a childhood rival to jump through – after stealing from that rival’s brother to set up the situation to begin with.
Still, once the novel gets moving, it never loses that forward momentum. John does his best to find the tablet and sidestep the shadowy group following along right behind him, but it seems every move he makes is anticipated or countered. He has to stave off a growing sense of futility, usually by holding up the example of his late brother (some of his memories of his time with Samuel are the most touching in the book), but he does have a few people in his corner – Hal’s ex-wife Laurel, the prickly Iraqi scholar Tomas, who had worked with Samuel to free the tablet in 2003, and his big hearted photojournalist brother, Ari. But are even these relationships what they seem, when so much is at stake?
The last quarter of the book ratchets the drama and tension up further; this is where McIntosh truly shines. Her depiction of beautiful Istanbul, Turkey and the desolation of war-torn Baghdad are deftly handled; the juxtaposition of John’s knowledge of Baghdad from Samuel’s letters to what he sees around himself now is especially poignant in what has been lost. Here the action becomes more vicious, the payoffs more desperate. And always, always, there are prices to pay, win or lose.
Like most good crime novels, however, the story doesn’t end when the biggest mysteries have been solved and resolved. McIntosh still has a few curves to throw us, to keep us on our toes. Some of the things that seemed slightly off kilter at the start of the journey now settle into place, and there are some not so subtle hints at what might next be in store for John Madison, for The Witch of Babylon is the first in a Mesopotamian trilogy.
What’s that you say? Something about bidding on a manuscript with a malevolent history? Heck, I’ve already absorbed some of the wonders of the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian empires; I’m intrigued, my interest has been piqued. Bring it on, John!