If you’ve ever traveled to Egypt, Christopher Bollen’s fast-paced new thriller, The Lost Americans, will take you back there. And, if you’ve never been, when you finish this book, you may feel as if you’ve made the trip. The Sahara dust settling on everything, the smells of baking bread and dirty camels, the competing cries of the muzzeins, the golden, dust-laden light of late afternoon, and the vicious, inches-to-spare traffic.
Manhattanite Cate Castle has never visited Egypt, so it’s all new to her, overlaid with a pall of grief and anxiety after the shock of her older brother’s death in Cairo. He reportedly died in a fall from the balcony of his room in the Ramses Sands Hotel. In the country on business, Eric was not yet forty and working for a boutique international arms supplier called Polaris. Egypt is one of Polaris’s best customers.
Back in New York before this trip, Eric’s death doesn’t sit right with Cate. She doesn’t believe the emerging official line that Eric committed suicide and insists on asking questions. She even enlists a retired forensic pathologist to examine his body. Defensive wounds. Injuries on both sides of his head, which a fall wouldn’t produce. Not to mention that his hotel room was only on the third floor. A fall from that height would likely be survivable. If you think Cate is becoming a little obsessed, you’ll also agree she has plenty of reason to be—especially when Polaris offers her family a multi-million-dollar settlement.
Thus, the trip to Egypt. She’s a fundraiser for an arts organization, not any sort of investigator, but what she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in motivation. Where to start that won’t get her in trouble? Let’s just say that she doesn’t need to go looking for it. From the moment she sets foot in the Cairo airport, it seems she’s in danger, and the pace of the novel never slackens.
Everyone seems to be lying to her, including Eric’s former work colleagues, his boss’s wife, the hotel staff, Eric’s embassy contact. It’s a cinch they’re not telling her everything. Cate stays busy finding people to interview and doesn’t spend much time sightseeing. But the sights and exoticism of Egypt are all around her. Her Grand Nile hotel is on the banks of one of the world’s longest and oldest rivers, which not only cleaves the country, it makes it possible. A few miles east or west is basically desert. To someone like Cate, who grew up in the sylvan Berkshire mountains of Western Massachusetts, the compression of so many people, so much living, and so much history into this narrow strip of land feels almost claustrophobic.
Bollen has an admirable literary writing style. He conveys ideas and feelings in ways that are both inventive and quite on point. From that standpoint and the fact that he’s willing to assume some cultural awareness on the part of his readers, the writing stands out. On the negative side, from time to time, he goes on too long with backstory.
I’ve been asking myself whether Cate is a plausible female protagonist. She’s certainly plucky and determined. Perfectly likeable. A little irrational, in that she broke up a good relationship back home through her own infidelity. But does she act like a woman would act when she wants information someone doesn’t want to share, or the way a woman would act in a tight situation? Or does she act more like a man with a woman’s name? I can’t put my finger on what bothers me about her, but just the fact that the question occurred to me makes me think she doesn’t exactly ring true, but it’s a small point in an otherwise well-conceived, extremely evocative thriller that respects the reader’s intellect. I liked it a lot.