Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


TALBOT MUNDY – The Mystery of Khufu’s Tomb. First published as “Khufu’s Real Tomb” in Adventure magazine, October 10, 1922. First book edition: Hutchinson & Co., UK, hardcover, 1933. First US edition: D. Appleton-Century Co., hardcover, 1935. Several other reprint editions exist. (Follow the link to an online edition of the pulp magazine version.)

   Talbot Mundy’s career was as strange as anything he wrote, and that is no small statement. A con man and adventurer in India he came to the United States, nearly died, saw the light, and reformed by becoming a writer, almost immediately penning a number of classics such as Rung Ho!, The Eye of Zeitoon, and Hira Singh. He shot to the top of the list of Haggard and Kipling successors and stayed there until his death, his work a staple in the pulps, particularly the grand old pulp icon, Adventure.

   His King of the Khyber Rifles was twice filmed, a bestseller, and even adapted by Classics Illustrated, and his novel Jimgrim, or King of the World is considered by many, myself included, the greatest achievement of the adventure pulps.

   Jimgrim featured one of Mundy’s series heroes (Tros of Samothrace, the Greek trader and opponent of Caesar and Cleopatra, is his other great creation), the American Captain James Schyler Grim, in the service of His Majesty’s Secret Service in the Middle and Near East. With his ally and friend Jeff Ramsden, his Sikh friend Naryan Singh, his Indian Secret Agent companion Chulander Ghose, and a small army of Mundy’s other heroes (Athleston King and Cottswold Ommony among them) he battles to keep the Middle East, Palestine in particular, from exploding.

   All of that fairly standard British Raj rah rah rah save for one fact: Talbot Mundy was no admirer of the Empire and stood for self-rule in India and the Middle East. It was a unique view of the world for an adventure story writer in that era. There is little racism or jingoism in Mundy.

   Later in life Mundy became obsessed with the philosophy of Theosophy, a semi-mystical religious movement out of Madame Blatavasky and the Golden Dawn. That would have ruined a lesser writer. In Mundy’s case it inspired his finest novels and most loved tales, Om: The Secret of Ahrbor Valley, The Nine Unknown, The Devil’s Guard, Full Moon, and Jimgrim.

   The change in his work showed first in the Jimgrim tales in Adventure, where Grim and company left the British Army and Secret Service behind and took up with American millionaire Meldrum Strange who financed their adventures from there on. And what adventures they were, a search for what happened to all the coins minted in the ancient world (they were hidden beneath the Ganges by the Nine Unknown), a war of good and evil on the roof of the world where the Black Lodge is challenged by the White, and the final novel of the series, Jimgrim, in which the world must be saved from a fanatical madman, leading to a finale that still stuns the unsuspecting reader today and never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

   In the transition period from the heyday of the series to the later deeper novels Mundy’s best is the Jimgrim adventure The Mystery of Khufu’s Tomb.

   It begins when engineer Jeff Ramsden is nearly run off a road on the Geiger Trail near Virginia City by Joan Angela Leich, the kind of headstrong heiress who was common in fiction of the time. Joan and Jeff are old friends though, and she has nearly gotten him killed before.

   She’s tall — maybe a mite too tall for some folks’ notions– and mid-Victorian mammas would never have approved of her, because she’s no more coy, or shy, or artful than the blue sky overhead. She has violet eyes, riotous hair of a shade between brown and gold, a straight, shapely little nose, a mouth that is all laughter, and a way of carrying herself that puts you in mind of all out-doors. I’ve seen her in evening dress with diamonds on; and much more frequently in riding-breeches and a soft felt hat; but there’s always the same effect of natural-born honesty, and laughter, and love of trees and things and people. She’s not a woman who wants to ape men, but a woman who can mix with men without being soiled or spoiled. For the rest, she’s not married yet, so there’s a chance for all of us except me. She turned me down long ago.

   That’s Joan all over, and a welcome breath of femininity she is in Mundy’s masculine world. She is also guaranteed trouble, and here is no exception. This time she has gotten involved with one Mrs. Isobel Aintree, a fatale femme with a cobra’s bite that Ramsden and Grim have battled before. Joan needs help concerning a purchase made while in Egypt during a revolution (the more things change …) where she “…went and bought a lot of land that everybody said was no good because it was too far from the Nile.”

   Now a man called Moustapha Pasha (“…there are men of all creeds and colours, who can mouth morality like machines printing paper money, but who you know at the first glance have only one rule, and that an automatic, self-adjusting, expanding and collapsing one, that adapts itself to every circumstance and always in the user’s favour. This man was clearly one of those.”) wants the land and won’t take no for an answer, but Joan is too stubborn to ever yield.

   Just what is on that land that Mrs. Aintree wants it and Moustapha Pasha is willing to bribe Ramsden to betray Joan to the tune of one million dollars (1920‘s dollars at that)? Mrs. Aintree wants it so bad she marries Moustapha Pasha. The answer must be in Egypt, and anywhere east of the Pillars of Hercules there is no better man to have on your side than Jimgrim, so Joan hires Meldrum Strange’s team to help her.

   As usual Grim knows more than might be expected:

   The men who are interested are keeping it awfully quiet among themselves, but Narayan Singh and I have overheard some talk, and the figure they name would make the Federal Reserve Board blink — fifty million pounds, or say two billion dollars!”

   “Let’s hope it’s true!” said I.

   “Let’s hope it isn’t true!” Grim answered. “Any such sum of money as that would turn Egypt into Hades! If it’s there it means civil war, whoever gets it!”

   Two billion dollars and the fate of Egypt, just the sort of thing Grim lives for.

And they are off with the help of a Chinese astronomer, Chu Chi Ying, and it is no real mystery what lies beneath Joan’s land.

   “…when they got to the so-called King’s Chamber it was empty. There never had been anything in it. Khufu was supposed to be buried in it, but he wasn’t. He was the richest Pharaoh Egypt ever had. He must have been, or he couldn’t have built the Pyramid. Where was he really buried, and what did he do with his money?”

   So if Khufu, Cheops, money is not in the Great Pyramid of Giseh, where is it? Want to hazard a guess?

   Our band of heroes must deal with enemies on all sides and excavate the treasure that Khufu flooded under Joan’s land without drawing too much attention. Mundy never made things easy for his heroes. You may even wish he had, because the danger, sweat, set backs, short-lived victories, and sheer impossibility of the task will leave the reader almost as stretched as the heroes.

   And it can only get worse, as Grim battles the forces of Moustapha Pasha and Mrs. Aintree above ground while Jeff and Joan are trapped underground avoiding death traps laid by the determined Khufu, and up against blind mutated giant albino crocodiles.

   Long before Indiana Jones, Clive Cussler, and James Rollins Mundy’s heroes were knee deep in the kind of adventures readers today savor. Today’s heroes rely on relentless action though, and while there is no shortage of action and movement, Mundy’s heroes use their brains first, then their brawn.

   That is one reason Mundy remains not only readable, but fresh and entertaining to read when so many others have been passed by. It isn’t hard to see the influence he had on Robert E. Howard, Philip Jose Farmer, and Fritz Leiber as well as a generation of adventure writers. His name still triggers images of exotic locales and high adventure in the wild places as much as Rider Haggard before him.

   I’ll give Mundy, via Ramsden, the last perfect words:

   In Singapore, in a little side street that runs down toward the quays, there lives a Chinaman named Chu Chi Ying, who teaches no more “fat-fool first mates” how to pass examinations for their master’s ticket, but smiles nearly all day long and amuses himself by making marvellous astronomical calculations. He seems to have an income quite sufficient for his needs, and a portrait of Joan Angela hangs on the wall just inside the doorway of his house. Go and look, if you don’t believe me. On your way, consider the stuffed, blind, white crocodile in the Gezivich Museum, Cairo.

   I don’t see that adventure today is in any better hands.