Close encounters of the ancient kind

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 1995, 12:00am

The Seventh Scroll by Wilbur Smith Macmillan $272 The wonderful thing about 'buried treasure' stories is that they could happen to you or me or anyone else. Hidden caches of gold are, by definition, sources of untold wealth that lie in the ground waiting for a smart, worthy person to find them.

Okay, so it hasn't happened to you yet, but it did happen in real life to Howard Carter, the man who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Egyptian tombs are buried treasure troves par excellence. Instead of a mere chest of jewellery buried in the ground, you go down dark tunnels and through mysterious doors until you enter a network of huge rooms full of ancient and priceless artefacts.

If you are a thriller fan, and you felt a frisson of excitement when reading the true story of Howard Carter's discovery, then get set to be taken on a journey by Wilbur Smith in his new work.

The writer, who sets most of his stories in modern-day Africa, enters the arcane world of archaeology in this latest epic. It is Smith's 25th novel, and contains copious amounts of the usual ingredients: high adventure, violence and romance, set in an alternately stark and lush African setting.

For those who have never read a Wilbur Smith epic, here's a thumbnail sketch. His particular skills are to be able to tell a fast-paced, twist-at-every-corner adventure story with drive and imagination.

His weakness is that he falls into the Hollywood rut of making his heroes handsome, brave, intelligent, strong, indestructable, suave etc, etc - the type of hero who still has time to make sharp witticisms while he is being pursued by murderous hordes bent on making him into an oversized doner kebab.

His heroines are slim, beautiful, romantic, and his villains are black-hearted, foul-mouthed, fire-spitting ogres. The reader knows from the first few chapters who is going to get the girl, the treasure and the best lines, and who is going to be - curses! - foiled again, and come to an unpleasant and violent end.

Having said that, there is an enjoyable twist in the relationship of the male and female characters in this book, which I won't spoil, except to say that their professional rivalry as archaeologists gets in the way of their blossoming romance a great deal deeper into the story than one might expect.

Also, realism briefly intrudes into the story when we learn, early on, that the male lead has financial problems.

To the highly literate reader, the cardboard quality of these characters and 'boy's own adventure' style of the story is a major barrier. To the millions of simpler people who buy Wilbur Smith's books, or who watch Indiana Jones movies for light escapism, this is no problem at all. I vacillate between the two camps, but once you get into an adventure with this much driving force, you tend to get carried along for the rest of the journey.

Royan, a beautiful but penniless Egyptian researcher, is on the trail of what she thinks is a major find. Pursued by unscrupulous villains who murder her husband, she elicits the help of Nicholas Quenton-Harper, a debonair English gentleman archaeologist. They trek through jungles in Ethiopia following clues in an old scroll, guided by the writings of a master thinker who lived 4,000 years ago. But the rival collectors - who just want the treasures for their cash value - are hot on their trail, with guns and helicopters.

There's a curious 'stereo' effect in this novel, in that the hero has a novelist friend, who happens to be the well-known Wilbur Smith. This may be a cute attempt to ground the story in historical reality, but I prefer to take the same attitude as people who watch Indiana Jones movies: this may be a wild and exciting ride but I can cope with the fact that it isn't real and is unlikely to happen to me on the way home from the cinema or the bookshop.