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Stel Pavlou

Simon & Schuster – Hardback 376 pages – 3 Jan 2005 – £12.99

New York. Another hostage situation to deal with for Detective James

North – this time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just what he needs, a

culture vulture criminal. He’s a touch surprised, however, when the

apparently pernicious perp calls for him by name and then releases the

abductee. North is determined to get to the bottom of these bizarre events

and sets about apprehending the hostage-taker – a man called Gene who, for

some inexplicable reason, he feels an untameable desire to kill. Confronting

Gene does not improve matters – North is injected with a strange substance

and begins having disturbing, vivid hallucinations. Or are they

hallucinations? Could the drug in fact be releasing deeply buried memories

of previous lives? North and Gene both have souls that stretch for thousands

of years, entwined in repeating battles, triumphs and failures. Cyclades

fought in the Trojan wars and is fated to return seven times to battle the

Babylonian magi Athanatos. These two (partly) mortal enemies are now

North and Gene – but which is which? In the meantime, the world has moved on. Technology can now discover which of Gene’s genes allow his soul to achieve effective immortality.

Pavlou’s novel is a contemporary narrative sprinkled with series of

vignettes (although that is perhaps too delicate a term) describing the

various incarnations of the pair and their encounters through the ages, a

sort of multi-millennial Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It is deliberately

kept ambiguous as to who is whom to further the blur between actuality and

hallucination, identity and destiny. As readers we sympathise more with

North because, like us, he is more in the dark and discovering his identity

for himself – we are placed in the same position of discovery. These scenes

allow both a pause in the basic thrust of the story and give Pavlou the

opportunity to describe historic or mythical events from an individual’s

point of view. For example we catch a glimpse of the pair in Nero’s Rome,

where the gladiator Cyclades’ life is spared because he calls out for Nero’s

physician Athanatos. Cyclades was one of the Greek warriors inside the

wooden horse when it was wheeled into besieged Troy, ready for a good hard

night’s sacking (mind you, although the Greeks had a point, I always felt sorry for Aeneas, especially when he lost dear old Creusa, and well, the Greeks cheated). So it was always about cherche la femme…

Though the story is freewheeling and broad in its approach there are plot strands that are left undeveloped. A particularly interesting one involves the Druze people of southern Lebanon, who believe in reincarnation and remain

independent to this day that is left needing more detail. As an introductory device to the many subjects and periods of history, Pavlou raises more interest than he’s prepared (or has a chance) to follow through in the text, which leaves the book wanting in some minor areas. Intriguing and engaging, but not quite thrilling.