ONE MIGHT REASONABLY ask why any normal person would want to read a book about mummies, the ultimate symbol of literary ghoulishness. Leaving aside questions of personal taste, which are not the concern of a reviewer, the reasons are those which apply to the perusal of any book: i.e., entertainment or the acquisition of information.

Unfortunately, the first of these two volumes, James Hamilton Paterson's and Carol Andrews' Mummies accomplishes neither aim. The book is not exactly inaccurate. Most of the statements of fact are correct, and perhaps only a pedantic Egyptologist would object to the inaccuracy, or highly questionable nature, of practically every interpretation of fact. These interpretations are expressed with a dogmatism that makes them even more objectionable. For example, Smenkhkare and Akhenaten "were both definitely the sons of Amenophis III (who in any case married his own daughter). . . ."

And who, pray tell, was Smenkhkare? That's the real problem with this book -- it isn't primarily about mummies. The quotation comes from a fairly irrelevant chapter on "Amarna, Tutankhamun and Tanis." Of the other chapters, only two deal with mummification, and one of these is a hodgepodge of later superstitions attached not only to mummies but to various other aspects of the Egyptian funerary cult. The 30 pages devoted to mummification per se are also a hodgepodge. They give the standard description of the basic process, cribbed from Herodotus, and then go on to discuss miscellaneous mummies, with no particular order or rationale.

Aside from the flatfooted and often misleading interpretations, the book suffers from poor organization and from a literary style which ranges from the painfully cute -- speculations about the hired mourners "tucking into" the funerary meal, and wondering how soon they can leave for their next engagement -- to the ponderously academic -- long inappropriate descriptions of niched panelling on early mastaba tombs. Even the pictures, essential to a book of this type, are poor -- grainy and blurry, in some cases so dark that details cannot be made out.

By contrast, Mysteries of the Mummies lives up to the promise implicit in its title and provides a coherent, well-organized introduction. One might quibble about the length of such introductory material, since presumably any reader interested in Egyptian mummies will have sufficient background to make superficial introductory chapters unnecessary. However, the book is designed for a lay audience, and perhaps some readers who have been initially attracted to it by memories of Boris Karloff bursting out of his rotten wrappings will acquire some useful, if not practical, information. The introductory chapters are virtually unexceptionable; the summary of mummification methodology is particularly good.

But the meat of the book, and its raison d'etre, is its description of the investigation of a group of mummies in the collection of the Manchester Museum by a team composed of experts from local hospitals and universities. The list of these experts is fascinating in itself; it includes not only Egyptologists, but specialists in pharmacognosy, histopathology and the electron-microscope structure of protozoa -- not to mention Dective Chief Inspector Fletchet, head of the Fingerprint Bureau of the Manchester Police.

Led by Dr. Rosalie David, this team of experts carried out what is probably the most thorough investigation ever made of a group of mummies. The sheer variety of scientific techniques employed is astonishing. The book is a magnificent illustration of the way in which non-archaeological disciplines can be used to assist archaeologists in their studies. But it is more than that. Throughout the detailed, but always comprehensible descriptions of method, there is a constant awareness of the fact that the withered husks under analysis were once human beings, and only a hardened reader could fail to be moved by the reconstruction of Mummy 1770, transformed by the team from an anonymous collection of bones and wrappings into "a reasonably attractive young teen-ager," who had to breathe through her mouth because of a severe sinus condition, and who suffered from fevers and itching as a result of Guinea worm infection.

Altogether, it's a most rewarding book for those who can see beyond the cliched gruesomeness of bare bones and grinning skulls, to the common humanity of reader, scientist and mummy.