As an Egyptologist, I have been for most of my life addicted to sensational fiction. I mention this not because I intend to discuss the psychological reasons for the curious but undeniable fact that archaeologists enjoy thrillers. I mention it only to avoid being accused of damning "Sphinx" because its author is ignorant of Egyptology. He is, and he makes many errors; my favorite is the title of the heroine's Ph.D. dissertation, which contains no less than four major howlers in a scant dozen words. Such errors are in the main avoidable and in my opinion, inexcusable but they are in this case irrelevant. "Sphinx," is a boring book, not because it is inaccurate but because it violates three and a half of the four criteria of a good suspense story.
To complain that a thriller has a preposterous plot is unfair. Consider two of the classics in the filed - "The Thirty-Nine Steps," and "Rogue Male." In both cases the plots are based on the totally irrational behavior of supposedly intelligent heroes, and ona series of wild coincidences. But Buchan and Household made these tales believable and highly suspenseful because of the skill with which their fragile plot devices are woven into a consistent whole. Robin Cook fails because he is not sufficiently skilled in the writer's craft. His plot limps and starts and falters.
The characters are as wooden as the ancient Egyptian statues the heroine consistently encounters. Every now and then the hero walks across the floor naked, and that's just about all he does. The heroine commits the onr unforgivable sin for a thriller heroine: She allows herself to be lured, at dusk, into a dangerous section of a perilous town, by men she has every reason to mistrust, after having witnessed two gory murders. That sort of female idiocy went out with Mary Roberts Rinehart. Practically all the other characters are villains, and the only way they can be distinguished from one another is by means of their nationalities - Greek, Egyptian, French, etc.
The third criterion, the setting includes background and atmosphere. In this Cook deserves an A for effort. He has read his Baedeker, and has dutifully tramped the tourist paths of Egypt with his notebook and pen in hand. He has obviously visited the sites he describes in somewhat laborious detail. He gets 50 points for geographical accuracy. He loses points by making his heroine an Egyptologist when she has only an educated tourist's knowledge of the subject. Perhaps this complaint is mere pedantry, but he could have avoided the difficulty by making the girl an archaeological secretary or an enthusiastic amateur. The plot would have lost nothing thereby.
The last, and perhaps the most important element in a good suspense story is its style. This is true in any form of writing, but it is particularly vital in this genre because it can carry the reader along with such speed and smoothness that he is too captivated to note other inadequacies, such as poor characterization or unlikely plot devices.
I can best describe Cook's style by quoting a friend of mine, who referred to his previous novel "Coma" as "Nancy Drew in med school." This book is the next one in the series - "Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Sphinx."