Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Wonder Chamber: Review

Despite the fact that my library has The Wonder Chamber by Mary Malloy shelved on the mystery "New Arrivals" shelf....a real mystery it is not.  In fact, for a good long while (try 214 pages out of 265 total) there isn't a terribly good indication that there's going to be a mystery at all--beyond the mystery of a missing Michelangelo candlestick.  But certainly not the kind of mystery that crime fiction fans are used to.  And when the mystery shows up it doesn't take anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention much brainpower to figure out A. who the mummy really is; B. who killed the person who became the mummy; and C. who turned the victim into a mummy.  But...I get ahead of myself.

So...what we have here is Professor Lizzie Manning, professor of St. Patrick's College in Boston, who has just landed the assignment of a lifetime.  She will have full access to an art and cabinet of curiosities ("Wonder Chamber") belonging to family related to the college founder.  This is a collection dating back to the Renaissance which holds everything from natural treasures ("unicorn" horns and "dragons") to a beautifully preserved Egyptian sarcophagus.  Professor Manning has already written a book about the college founder and now the college president and the family want her to oversee the organization of a special display of the family treasures in time for the centennial celebration.

She goes to Italy to survey and catalogue the proposed exhibit pieces and becomes interested in the Gonzaga family's history--particularly in Maggie, wife of Lorenzo Gonzaga and daughter of the college founder.  Her interest takes her through the turbulent years of World War II and she becomes aware of events that will require a modern day explanation.  For when she examines the sarcophagus, instead of an empty coffin she finds a very real mummy.  But the mummy is not as old as its container.  Who is it? And how long has it been hidden in the sarcophagus?

As I mentioned a mystery, this story falls short of a mystery lover's expectations.  It take forever to get to the real puzzle.  And when you get there, there isn't much of a puzzle.  There's no real build-up; there's no real conflict; and the denouement leaves a bit to be desired.  If this had been billed as a straight fiction story (with a bit of mystery flavor), then it would rate higher.  There is a lot of interesting historical information about Italy during the Second World War.  There are some fascinating passages about curiosity collections.  There are some fine character interactions between Lizzie Manning and the modern day members of the Gonzaga family.  For the most part I like Lizzie and the descriptions of her researches are well done.  I do find it difficult to believe that someone as smart as she is would not have seen the implications of the monologue (for lack of a better description without giving away what little mystery there is) which she recorded and the effect it might have on the person who translated it.  There's no way she could be that obtuse.  Given that I was expecting a mystery--and an academic mystery at that!--I'm afraid that The Wonder Chamber rates a less-than-wonderous two stars--an okay read that could have been much better.

Challenges Met:  100 Plus Challenge, 52 Books in 52 Weeks, A-Z Reading Challenge, Book Bingo, Cruisin' Thru the Cozies, Eclectic Reader, How Many Books, Library Books Challenge, Million Pages, Outdo Yourself, Women Challenge, European Reading Challenge, 


fredamans said...

Fab review! All this Egyptian mythology is right up the hubby's alley! Have to pass it along.

Anonymous said...

Wow you are powering along with the challenge!