Game and Book Retrospectives

Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi

Rob MacGregor, 1991

Indiana Jones and the Books of Merchandising

‘Cash-in’ novels were popular with movie franchises in the 90s, although it may be more fair to call them ‘tie-in’ novels. The Star Wars and Star Trek novels range from laughably bad to on par with their big-screen counterparts, and many hold a beloved place in fans’ hearts, and even important parts in the series’ canon.

So where do Indy novels fit on this scale? The Raiders of the Lost Ark film was released in 1981, three years after Star Wars merchandise hit the shelves. George Lucas’ love of merchandising was well and truly established and so the novelisation of Raiders was actually finished and published ahead of the film, making it the first Indiana Jones product ever released. The movie novelisations continued, but there were original adventures as well.

There were 12 novels in the original run from 1991 to 1999 from three different authors. They, too, range from laughably bad to quite enjoyable, but nothing on par with Star Wars’ Thrawn Trilogy in terms of quality of story, writing or importance to the fans. In fact, while it’s not hard to find fans of Star Wars and Trek who have picked up at least one novel, the Indy books are scarcely even known about, let alone read. There were also a number of German novels released, some of which have been unofficially translated into English by harcore fans, and if we’re talking fans, there is also an unofficial novelisation of the Fate of Atlantis adventure game. After a hiatus, the novelisation of Crystal Skull came out alongside the film in 2008, and they had another stab at an original story in 2009 with Indiana Jones and the Army of the Dead.

To muddle the issue slightly more, Rob MacGregor, author of the first 6 books, also released a novel entitled Crystal Skull, which is unrelated to Indiana Jones, in the same year as his first Indy novel. And while we’re getting confused, Rob MacGregor’s 1992 Indiana Jones and the Interior World is based on the same premise as Max McCoy’s 1997 Indiana Jones and the Hollow Earth.

Indy’s official life story is thankfully a bit simpler. The films are considered canon, overriding anything in the The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, with the books in a late third place. There are some conflicts between The Peril at Delphi, but in general after reading the books, especially the more outlandish and fantastical stories, you’re unlikely to want them considered in the same breath as the on-screen escapades anyway.

Great cover art by Drew Struzan, as always.

The Peril at Delphi

Author Rob MacGregor has a background in archaeology, and organised adventure tours in the Amazon in the 1980s. A look at the books he’s written will show he also has some interest in the supernatural, so you would hope he was a good fit for Indy. In particular he is interested in dreams, what they mean, and how they intersect with real life. Unfortunately in later books. The crazier fantasy ideas start to heavily outbalance the realism Indy is based in, and MacGregor’s interest in dreams really takes over, a very out-of-place through-line in the first six novels.

Although the term ‘prequel’ and the making of them would not be popularised until George Lucas began the Star Wars prequel trilogy in 1999, these books were set before the films in order to avoid any interference with future stories.

We meet a young, inexperienced Indy in university, on his first archaeological adventure. He starts off nearly getting expelled from university which feels a strange choice as we know what a committed academic he is. I suppose this establishes his maverick ways, but all goes well and he continues to Paris to study ancient languages, where the parallel studies of archaeologies sparks his interest. In The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles he wants to be an archaeologist from a young age, but his journey in this book feels very fitting, being pushed into linguistics by his father but then finding his own, more practical, field of work.

The set up feels very grounded and real, and as such he’s not really the Indy we know and love, an Indy of which we have seen for six hours total screen time. A hero caricature might get tiresome spread across months or years in novels, and MacGregor did a great job of making a young Indy feel like a fleshed-out human being.

In Paris, Indy shows his love of Jazz, hanging out with his university friend Jack Shannon, a trumpet player. In this and subsequent books, Jack will show up in whichever remote part of whichever country Indy is in for some reason. If he's not randomly bumped into, he’ll often be wedged into the story for reasons unknown, as jazz musicians are famously useful people to bring along on life-or-death adventures. This is fine, it can be fun to bring familiar characters along in a story. It starts to get more odd however, when random characters from Indy's past we have barely met start popping up to say hello in random exotic locations, even when it serves no purpose in the story.

Indy meets his mysterious and attractive professor, Dr. Dorian Belecamus, an expert on Greek history and mythology. From the start she is painted as more of an Elsa Schneider untrustworthy figure, perhaps a result of MacGregor having written The Last Crusade novelisation. Of all the movie romantic interests, it wouldn’t have been a Marion Ravenwood, as MacGregor was asked specifically not to write about her in case she returned in later films (17 years later, George Lucas followed through on this idea).

Neatly, Belecamus teaches Indy and the reader everything we need to know about the myths and history of Delphi before we head off in search of an ancient artifact. It’s a solid Indiana Jones setup and, as the plot thickens, Indy is drawn into the adventure.

It feels formulaic in a good way, as can the films themselves. It’s a comfortable story, and it does feel somewhere in between the young Indy of the tv show and the mature Indy of the films. The story and the details of the particular MacGuffin have been criticised as dry or boring, and it’s true there’s relatively little action in The Peril at Delphi. It’s a bit more Henry Jones Jr. than Indiana Jones, but then that fits in with the time in Indy’s life. I quite enjoyed that aspect and feel it sets the book apart from the films, but then I do often enjoy boring things so perhaps I’m not the best judge. If you are after pure schlock action archaeology then look no futher than the first Tomb Raider tie-in book The Amulet of Power. Gun-toting Lara Croft blasts her way out of every action-packed situation, and even worse, is at one point extremely rude to a waiter. I’ll take boring, thanks.

A real omphalus stone - Wikipedia

It’s certainly less of an ambitious story than the Lucasarts adventure game The Fate of Atlantis released a year later in 1992, but the MacGuffin and related myths are perfectly serviceable. The omphalos is an ancient Greek artifact said to bring power to the Oracle of Delphi, a prophet who can predict the future and bring power to whoever they serve. Sometimes smaller scale stories are best, and the balance of fact and myth is as well balanced as the movies. Something which can not be said of all the later novels.

Delphi doesn’t really match up with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which started airing two years after this book was published and takes precedence in story canon. I do like this retelling just as much, despite the huge differences. Young Indy wants to be an archaeologist since childhood after a trip to Egypt, while Delphi Indy is a reluctant archaeologist, until a beautiful woman entices him towards it.

The Peril at Delphi doesn’t try to shoehorn in origins for story elements such as Indy's famous whip, hat, and so on. The origins of his whip and his fear of snakes were already shown in The Last crusade in what some might find a bit of a contrived scene but generally is regarded as good fun. It's certainly no cringeworthy Solo moment. MacGregor understands there’s no need to provide a special reason for Indy to wear a fedora. In the 1930’s and 40s people wore hats, indeed it was notable if a man didn’t wear a hat. In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, a witness describes the suspect “In his early forties, I should judge. Medium height, fattish […] Well dressed, goes without a hat, affects a knowledge of antiques and hasn’t any."

The occasional out of place reference does sneak in there for the benefit of the audience. "He was also proficient at the use of a whip, an odd skill he rarely talked much about." was mentioned at one point without any context. Although later the book mentions the whip again to specify that it is purely decorative. While in a desperate situation, Indy thinks back to his decorative whip and wishes he had it with him to help him escape. It’s all over the place, and doesn’t really need to be mentioned at all.


At multiple points throughout the book Indy has symbolic dreams about his situation laced with mysterious meaning. This wasn’t particularly out of place, but I will later find out that this is a running theme throughout MacGregor’s books. Dreams become a more and more important aspect of the stories to their detriment, and taking agency away from Indy himself. Why solve a mystery when you can just have a dream which telegraphs the answer? Can you imagine Harrison Ford waking up from a nap and telling Marion not to worry about the Nazi’s because he just dreamt it was all going to be fine? After I finished the first six novels I looked the author up and he has written multiple non-fiction books about dreams and how they might control our lives. This won't be the last indy novel to have weird intrusions about the author's personal interests, and the other one is arguably more detrimental to his books. It’s not so intrusive in Delphi, so I'll let it slide for now.

Overall it’s a satisfying read if you're looking for more Indiana Jones stories, and let’s bear in mind that Indiana Jones was inspired by the simple and fun serial movies of the 1930s and 40s. It’s not meant to be Shakespeare. We see Indy maturing, his progression from linguistics to archaeology felt right and explains much of his talents. It feels like an Indy story with fleshed out characters. Its slower pace and smaller stakes feels appropriate, especially set against the trans-galactic, multiverse-spanning alien adventures of the Crystal Skull movie.

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