Seemingly Silly Books about a Serious Subject: Protecting the Past with Cairo Jim

In May this year, the Our Mythical Childhood project will host its second major conference: Our Mythical History.

I’ve signed up to talk about some exuberantly silly books about a very serious subject (history). I’m starting with the classical adventures in the Cairo Jim series of archaeological comedies by Australian author, Geoffrey McSkimming. I’ve ordered a pile of them through interlibrary loan, and am getting increasingly cheery emails from the wonderful librarians of UNE’s Dixson Library, as they let me know a new one has arrived. I’ve ordered all the ones with classical titles, and am only sorry that I didn’t have time to visit Sydney this summer to see Cairo Jim and the Tomb of Martenarten on stage.

There are currently 19 Cairo Jim novels, each one action packed, full of silly jokes and slapstick, and a lot of fun.

They feature the eponymous Cairo Jim, ‘that well-known archaeologist and little-known poet,’ a dreamy type who lives in the fictional ‘Valley of the Hairdressers’ in Cairo, and whose mission in life is to ‘protect the past.’ He travels the world with his helpers, Doris the Macaw and Brenda the Wondercamel, helping fight the nefarious Dr Neptune Flannelbottom Bones, a no-good scoundrel who is continually trying to get hold of powerful ancient artefacts, in company with his wicked raven helper, Desdemona. There are puns galore, secret societies, and amazing settings, reminding me of the interest I felt in seeing the scenery of other archeological adventures, such as the Indiana Jones or Mummy series.

I only know about Cairo Jim because of a recommendation a couple of years ago from the son of a colleague. I’m enjoying reading them, finding in them the occasional wonderful chuckle or vivid scene that makes me remember that jewels of literary insight are to be found in all sorts of curious places.

I’m currently reading  Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis. It’s set in Turkey, among the underground cities of Cappadocia, the fairy chimneys, Kaymakli. I write these names as if I know all about them, but in fact I don’t, I’ve heard the odd snippet, but really I’m wonderfully ignorant, and so reading this book takes me travelling with Jim, Brenda, and Doris, to a fascinating and beautiful part of the world.

It also takes us travelling to the past. The past, in the Cairo Jim novels, is in need of protection. From the predations of Neptune Flannelbottom Bone, and also from the neglect of the present. And as the villains and heroes enter the past, through important archaeological sites, they find the magic of ancient gods and rulers still alive, though often buried, covered in dust, hidden, or scattered to the winds. In this book, it’s the petticoats of Artemis that have the power, magic garments that, if united with the ‘belt of bountaeity,’ can cause mayhem and destruction, especially if they fall into Neptune Bone’s greedy hands. Even though they have been carefully hidden by a priest named Caius Vibius Salutaris, and protected by the green-fanged Belligerent Serpent of Antiocheia, the adventurers chase one another, drawn by the lure of the past, the desire for knowledge, and (in Bone’s case, greed). I won’t tell you how it ends. You can probably guess. The action comes thick and fast, and involves underground tunnels, rolling stone discs, lightning bolts, and the realisation that the magic of the mythical past is still alive, and not for mortals to handle.

There are a great many Cairo Jim novels, and McSkimming has written many other over-the-top adventures, including the Jocelyn Osgood, and Phyllis Wong series, and his book of poetry, Ogre in a Toga (which should win a prize for the title alone). McSkimming has a flair for the ridiculous, and for a turn of phrase, and it’s possible to read the books in one hilarious gulp.

Froth is not always enough, though, and I’ve been thinking about this as I work on my paper for Warsaw. What’s the difference between laughing at something serious and reflecting solemnly upon it? What’s the point? I’ll try to get there in time for my presentation.

One hint for me is in the depiction of Cairo Jim’s sidekick, the reflective and telepathic ‘wonder-camel,’ Brenda. Brenda is prone to snorting her thoughts, and exclaiming ‘quaooo,’ and at first, reading too quickly for plot, I missed how delightful a character she is. But all of a sudden, the pace slowed (or I did), and here she is at twilight while her companions chat around a campfire, quietly searching through the rubble of Aphrodisias, using her super-sensitive nose to seek for clues.

 
What I am looking for, Brenda thought deeply, is a single Latin letter.  That was the alphabet in which Caius Vibius Salutaris would have written his message, because that was the language used in Ephesus in Roman times. 
 
She didn’t know what that letter would be . . .  maybe a D or a V or a C.  Maybe not even one of those.  But she knew that once she found a single letter of the type used in the ancient Roman script, then she would probably find other letters.  Maybe they would be right next to the first letter she would find, or maybe, if the slab containing the first letter had smashed, the other letters would be on nearby fragments of marle in the grass.  If that was the case, then Jim and Doris and she would have an ancient jigsaw puzzle to piece together. 
 
As her sensitive nostrils moved across the marble, she concentrated—as hard as she had concentrated on anything before—and in her mind she began to see the curves and straight lines that made up the letters of the Latin alphabet. 
 
Carefully, with her unique Wonder Camel precision of mind, muscle and minutiae, she transferred the images in her head to the muscles of her nostrils.  (Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, 130-131)

You don’t need me to tell you that she is successful, finding first a cool smooth slab of marble, then identifying a D, then a G, then a full inscription (in English !?), exhorting the reader to ‘Dig Beneath.’

It’s a lovely scene–a moment of needed rest in the midst of a busy plot. And what I like so much about it is the way that McSkimming captures the joy of working with material from the past: the puzzling, the shifting things about, the trying things from different angles, the patiences, the ‘precision of mind, muscle, and minutiae.’ There’s a quietness to that work, even when urgent plotlines clamour all around.

Moments of seriousness like this offer a counterbalance to the excitement, showing the research side of archaeological adventuring, the knowledge and skill (and sensitive nostrils) to find and solve the clues. They slow the reader down, and encourage them to think a little before getting caught up in the next stage of the adventure, helping with context and exposition, and giving clues to the humanity of the past–the leaver of the clue, the carver of the marble.

As part of their mission to protect the past, Brenda, Jim and Doris are part of a society of scholars. When they are on the trail of a mysterious artefact, it is for the sake of knowledge and beauty and understanding, good things to keep in mind for readers young and old. So perhaps one way into thinking about seemingly silly or frothy books is to look for moments where the narrative digs beneath the surface, pauses for reflection, before taking a breath and the action, fun, and excitement begin again.

—Elizabeth Hale

**Three of the Cairo Jim novels have been reviewed on the Our Mythical Childhood survey: Cairo Jim and the Chaos from CreteCairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheusand Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods.

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