Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Peters’ Category

It is 1884 and thirty-two-year-old spinster Amelia Peabody, having inherited a modest fortune from her scholarly father, has set out to finally see some of the world.  Full (some might say overfull) of confidence in her vast knowledge, quick-wittedness, and moral superiority, she has bludgeoned her away across Europe – maid and companion unhappily in tow – and arrived in Rome.

And it is in Rome that her story, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, begins:

When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome – (I am informed, by the self-appointed Critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error.  If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind.  Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had.  Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate.  I had, as I have always had, purpose enough for two.

What follows is a perfect homage to Victorian adventure novels, with exotic settings, dastardly villains, sweet young lovers, a deadly threat…and Amelia.

Amelia is the masterstroke.  She is bold and forceful and often right but frequently entertainingly blind to that which is directly in front of her.  Peters has great fun in making this clear to the reader even as Amelia, our narrator, remains ignorant.

After learning of Evelyn’s tragic circumstances (but also her impeccable lineage), Amelia becomes determined to take care of her.  Evelyn, far, far, far more rational than Amelia, points out that this seems inadvisable:

‘I might be a criminal!  I might be vicious – unprincipled!’

‘No, no,’ I said calmly. ‘I have been accused of being somewhat abrupt in my actions and decisions, but I never act without thought; it is simply that I think more quickly and more intelligently than most people.  I am an excellent judge of character.  I could not be deceived about yours.’

Evelyn, starving and destitute, has her rescuer and Amelia finally has some colour in a life that has been far too quiet for far too many years.

Together the ladies continue on to Egypt where Peters, an Egyptologist, quickly and entertainingly guides us through the major tourist sights, presents to us the noted archaeologists of the day, and, most importantly, introduces us to two young men, the brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson.  Walter and Evelyn are immediately dazzled by one another’s good looks, sweet personalities, and overall aura of kindness.  Like Amelia, you can only look on in approval.  Elder brother Radcliffe, generally called by his surname, and Amelia have a different and far more combative initial impact on one another.

Amelia and Evelyn set out in a dahabeya to cruise the Nile and coincidentally (nothing is coincidental when Amelia is involved) find themselves visiting the site the Emerson brothers are excavating.  Soon they are an integral part of the excavation team, which is thrilling enough, but then mysterious things begin to happen.  Can the ghostly shape that seems to be disturbing them in the night truly be a mummy?  No.  Even they know that.  Most of the time. But the truth is as sinister as any true Victorian pulp novelist could have wished.

I read this book first in my early teens and didn’t appreciate it.  I was still at a stage in my reading when I wanted protagonists to be relatable.  Amelia was so old (how things change!) and rigid and didn’t she know how ridiculous she was?  I put it down without thinking of reading on.

I came back to it in my late teens as though it was an entirely different book.  It wasn’t but I was an entirely different person, one who was finally capable of appreciating Peters’ comic brilliance.  I adored it and read on through the entire series (or at least the seventeen books that were then available).

The series is fantastic and I’m thinking of rereading it in full this year.  Amelia mellows with time, which is necessary to sustain our sympathy for several decades, and other enticing characters are introduced, but the freshness of Crocodile on the Sandbank does fade away a little.  Other pleasures replace it (young Ramses!  Older Ramses!) but Peters was free to have such fun with this first book and it shows.  It is never anything but a delight to reread it.

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photo via author's website

photo via author’s website

I was sad to hear of the passing of Barbara Mertz at the age of 85 on August 8th but only as sad as you can be about the death of a woman who has lived to a ripe old age and written more books than the world has the right to demand of any one author.  I love her Amelia Peabody series (written under her most famous pseudonym, Elizabeth Peters) but have only just begun to sample her other books.

I have never read any of the gothic, supernatural novels that Mertz wrote as Barbara Michaels nor have I read the more scholarly non-fiction that Mertz, who earned a PhD in Egyptology, wrote under her own name.  But for many years I have been an admirer of her most famous creation, that parasol-wielding terror of the desert, Amelia Peabody Emerson.  I wasn’t an immediate fan; I remember starting Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first book in the 19 volume series, a few times in my early teens and giving up in frustration.  Amelia, forceful and blunt, was not the kind of instantly sympathetic heroine I was accustomed to and it took a few more years until I could appreciate her unique charms.  In the summer of 2005, I read all of the 17 books published at that point, one after the other.  It was a bit mad but it was wonderful to be immersed for so long in Peters’ Egypt, tracking the changes in both the country and Amelia’s family over the almost forty-year period that the books cover.

He Shall Thunder in the SkyThe Falcon at the PortalThis summer, I reread two of my favourite books from the Amelia Peabody series while I was travelling in Europe: The Falcon at the Portal and He Shall Thunder in the Sky.  These books are set between 1911 and 1915 and, as fans will know, their appeal has less to do with Amelia than with her dashing son Ramses.  When younger, Ramses was one of those precocious children who are either delightful or infuriating depending on your mood.  Grown up, Ramses is proper brooding action hero material, always engaged in dangerous covert activities.  These books are just as swoon-y as I remember them being (which is to say very) though the bleak ending of The Falcon at the Portal has always made me happy that I discovered the books long after the rest of the series was available.  How did fans endure the wait for He Shall Thunder in the Sky and the longed-for happy ending?

Legend in Green VelvetImmediately after reading those two books, I had my first delightful encounter with one of Peters’ early stand-alone mysteries.  Legend in Green Velvet was published in 1976 and though it is a little rough around the edges and more madcap than I’m usually prepared to tolerate, it was great fun.  Susan, an American archaeology student obsessed with all things Scottish, finds herself in trouble almost as soon as she arrives in Scotland.  After receiving a mysterious note from a man who is later found murdered, Susan becomes an object of interest to both the police and an odd group of people who seem to want her dead as well.  In the company of Jamie Erskine, a handsome young Scot, Susan finds herself fleeing through the hills and hiding in the heather in a delightful send-up of all those novels that take an overly romantic view of Scotland and Scottish history.  I could not stop giggling while I read this, which is always a good sign.  Peters writes marvellous banter and Jamie is a fabulous non-alpha hero (another thing, I’m learning, Peters excelled at).

Devil May CareBut as much as I enjoyed Legend in Green Velvet, Devil May Care, released in 1977, was even better.  It has equally well-written banter, an even better non-alpha hero, and the sort of easily explained away supernaturalism that even I can enjoy.  When Ellie comes to housesit at her Aunt Kate’s large home in Virginia, she is looking forward to being left alone with the cats and the dogs and, to be honest, having a bit of a break from her boring fiancé.  But when ghosts start appearing, all seemingly members of the town’s founding families, even the level-headed Ellie is a bit spooked.  With the help of Donald, a handsome young neighbour, and a few of Aunt Kate’s other friends, Ellie begins to work out what is going on.  It is wonderfully fun to read, especially the interactions between Ellie and Donald, and I can’t help but suspect that Peters, already an established author of suspense novels as Barbara Michaels, had great fun writing a satirical take on the genre.

With so many of Peters’ books left to discover, I can only feel thankful that she was so prolific as well as so talented.  She may be gone but I still have much of her legacy left to discover.

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A new Amelia Peabody Emerson book!  I’d almost forgotten how much I missed her (and Emerson and Nefret and Ramses.  Especially Ramses) but it only took a few sentences of A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters for me to remember. 

As with most of the books in the series, it was rather light on plot but if I were reading these books for the plots I would never have made it through the first book (to be fair, it took me three tries to get through that one, but those were the days before Ramses).  It does have the normal, wonderful dynamics of the Emerson clan, not to mention Ramses being dashing and heroic and a generally all together too romantic figure.  We can’t forget that.  I love Emerson and am quite fond of David and Nefret (not Amelia particularly) but it’s Ramses who draws me in.  He’s the reason I reread these books over and over, ignoring weak plots and insanely dramatic adventures.

Rather than the familiar setting of Egypt, this volume is set in Palestine in 1910 (placing it between Guardian of the Horizon and The Falcon at the Gate) where the Emersons become entangled with German spies, a strange interfaith fellowship, and the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant.  And Ramses finds himself kidnapped.  Of course.  It’s that kind of old-fashion storytelling makes these books so irresistible: the romance, the adventure, the exotic settings, the nefarious villains.  Usually, I enjoy the archeological details as well, but those are few and far between here, of very little significance to the events that move the plot along.

Peters also includes many not-so-subtle hints about Nefret’s changing feelings for Ramses (which we were already beginning to see in Guardian of the Horizon).  She is typically quiet and underused and Amelia only seems to record Nefret’s skin colour (flushed versus pale as expressions of emotion) rather than actual conversations.  Poor Nefret.  The boys get to run around playing spies and even Amelia gets to poke wrong doers with her parasol while Nefret stays in town, taking care of servants and being coddled by the senior Emersons.  Nefret has always been the most uneven character in the series – a strong modern woman who fades into the background in most books, the reader only being reminded of her when Ramses decides it is time to explore his unrequited love for her.  Terribly frustrating.

This isn’t Peters’ strongest book in the series but it’s still good fun and a quick read.  Already, I’m seriously contemplating a reread of some of the others books.  There’s nothing like a good adventure story to start off the summer.

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