Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi
by Rob MacGregor (Bantam, 1991)
The release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has encouraged Lucas Books and Bantam to re-release their series of Indiana Jones novels that started in 1991 and ran to twelve volumes. This piqued my interest, since some of the plot descriptions sounded intriguing. Indiana Jones novels seem like an ideal way to create retro-pulp adventure in the mood of Adventure, Argosy, and Blue Book, the top adventure magazine titles of the 1920s and ’30—with a touch of Weird Tales thrown in. Plus, I have an on-again off-again affair with the media tie-in/pastiche novel. I always wonder if I might one day get some work doing a tie-in, so I occasionally give them a look to see what they’re like.
This trail of thinking lead me this week to read the first of the Indiana Jones novels, 1991’s Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi by Rob MacGregor, who wrote a total of six novels in the series and also the novelization of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The novel series follows a chronology that starts in this book in 1922, when Indy enters his third year of graduate school at the Sorbonne and veers from linguistics to archaeology. The young student takes up an offer from his gorgeous archaeology teacher, Miss Dorian Belecamus, to travel to the Greek city of Delphi to investigate a tablet recently revealed in an earthquake. Delphi is the site of the famous oracle of Greek history, and after Indy and Dorian arrive at the site, they find that strange vapors are rising from the crevice in the temple ruins—possibly the same mephitic vapors that the Delphic oracle breathed before she went into a trance and uttered obscure prophecies. But there’s even more bubbling up, and Indy suspects that Dorian has other motives, which have a connection to a coming visit to Delphi from the King of Greece and a cabal of believers who await the reappearance of the Oracle. Things become more complex when Indy discovers a bizarre rock in the vapor-emitting crevice that may be the source of the oracle’s power.
Cool, right? Alas, my hopes of pulp mania, or even a simulacrum of the film series, ended up as mephitic vapors soon dispersed. The book starts with a sluggish series of “prologue” chapters about Indy’s involvement in an undergrad prank in Chicago which has little to do with what follows except to introduce two characters who will pop up much later, Professor Ted Conrad and Indy’s jazz-loving friend Jack Shannon. A leap in time takes us to Indy at the Sorbonne and his uncharacteristic infatuation with Ms. Belecamus. “Uncharacteristic” activity happens a lot with this Indy; maybe MacGregor is trying to paint a different portrait of our hero because he’s much younger, but little of the rough humor and charm I associate with Indiana Jones from the movies comes through. In general, the sly humor of the movies is missing. So is the action: except for a car careening through Athens at the conclusion, there are few thrills. Most of the book has the characters stomping around Delphi trying to push their vague agendas and wondering if the vapors have any power. The pulp rush never happens. The whole enterprise feels like a mild young adult thriller with some education excursions (and MacGregor tosses in quite a few history tidbits, both about the 1920s and ancient Greece) than a grand adventure from those beautiful cheap paper magazine of the pulp era.