The Mask of Ra by Paul Doherty

Pharaoh Tuthmosis II returns to Thebes from his battles against sea-raiders only to find his tomb desecrated and dead doves falling from the sky. Amid these omens, Pharaoh drops dead from a snake bite. Thus begins a deadly power struggle in Thebes. Who is blackmailing Pharaoh’s wife, Hatusu? Who is controlling the assassins who lurk in the shadows? And can Amerotke, Chief Judge of Thebes, get to the bottom of things before all of Egyptian society collapses?

Oh, and if Pharaoh was bitten on the royal barge by a rock viper (where the snake was found) how did he walk all of the way to the palace before collapsing – given that the viper’s venom kills instantaneously?

That’s what I like to see in an historical mystery – the sort of impossible crime that you simply couldn’t get away with in a modern story. Possibly the only mystery with an impossible snake bite, rest assured that the body count soon increases – another snake, a decapitation or two and a wholesale battle at one point.

Doherty has taken some really historical events – the death of Tuthmosis was sudden – and weaved a cracking story around them. Ancient Egypt springs to life as we follow Amerotke’s investigations into Pharaoh’s death and his elevation into Hatusu’s inner circle. It’s a little raunchier than the other books that I’ve read to date, so I wouldn’t recommend this to younger readers, which is a bit of a shame, but the mystery is excellent.

The impossible snakebite is reasonable – I guessed how it was done, sort of, but I don’t think it’s obvious. The villain of the piece is very well hidden, although there is only, I think, one small clue to indicate them. I would expect that most readers (including me) will be looking in the wrong direction when the killer is revealed.

The motive is the most fascinating part of the book, and I can’t go into it here, for spoiler-y reasons. It seems incredulous, until the historical note that reveals that it is based in fact. Absolutely fascinating and I feel I need to read up more on Ancient Egyptian society.

A word of warning though – I haven’t read any of the later books yet but if possible, read this one first as I get the impression that a number of the suspects are regular characters in the series, so you might spot the bad guy by a process of elimination.

These seems to be another top-notch series from the prolific Dr Doherty – recommended.


It’s on Amazon, so it’s still in print. There are cheaper copies at the usually places and probably free ones at your local library.


  1. Doc, this another excellent review and a great appetizer as well! Now I really can’t wait for the mailman, who I affectionately call the All-Year Round Santa-Claus, to deliver a package that contains this book. But before tackling it, I want to read Doherty’s The Plague Lord.

    I’m surprise you couldn’t think of another story featuring an impossible snake bite of sort. Heck, it’s possibly one of the most famous short stories in the genre!


  2. Technically, there isn’t a bite in that one, is there? That would kind of give the game away… I may be wrong, Sherlock isn’t high on my list of favourites.

    Looking forward to hearing about The Plague Lord – I’ve not dipped into the non-series work yet (and my to-read list is pretty full at the moment…)


  3. You know how when you over-analyse something, it loses its charm? I’d assumed that in said story that as the cause of death was unknown, the snake in question had frightened the woman to death. However, according to SH “it would take a sharp-eyed coroner to could distinguish the two little dark punctures…” – in other words, to make the classic story work, the coroner, failing to find a cause of death, did not spot a snake bite…

    So you’re right. But I’ll maintain that it’s more of an impossible snake than an impossible bite 🙂


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