Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters.
The sixth volume of Amelia Peabody’s adventures swerves somewhat from the criminal mystery precedent of the earlier books. This episode is instead concerned with the Emerson-Peabody family’s discovery of (and captivity in) a lost civilization in the Sudan, where Cushite-exported pharaonic customs have survived into the late 19th century. There is, however, plenty of intrigue and skulduggery, not to mention the most plain violence on display in any of the series’ books thus far.
Despite the emphasis on action, there is something especially bookish about this volume, with notable attention given to popular 19th-century English literature. The author confesses that The Last Camel Died at Noon is an homage to the work of H. Rider Haggard, and there are many references throughout the novel to Haggard’s books She and King Solomon’s Mines, both of which are fodder for the central narrative. In addition, Wilkie Collins’ seminal 19th-century mystery The Moonstone is given a part to play.
The longish story is broken into two parts: first the archeological expedition to the Sudan and the circumstances that drew them to the Holy Mountain in the desert wilderness, and then the events of their stay and eventual escape. This book, unlike its predecessors, also benefits from a small handful of maps and line illustrations. The latter tend to depict relevant art and artifacts, of which a typically amusing example is the carved relief of a “Queen of Meroe spearing captives with girlish enthusiasm.” (312)
The final chapter of the book seems to intimate an impending change to the scope and arrangements of Peabody’s family, but I suppose it will be necessary to read the next installment to find out whether and how that comes to pass.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters.
“Compared to London, Egypt is a veritable health resort,” remarks Amelia Peabody Emerson in this fifth of the novels which she narrates. This one is the first, though, which is set principally in England, with a mere bit of preamble beforehand in Egypt, for a geographic reversal of the prior books. This change also condenses the time-line, so that readers don’t have to wait until the next year’s archaeological season in Egypt to pick up the thread of the story.
Radcliffe Emerson is supposed to be working on his scholarly treatise in London, but it goes without saying that solving puzzling crimes precludes such pedestrian concerns for most of the story. The book is positively bursting with contempt for British Museum curator and egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge, an accurately-named historical character despite the occasional reference to “Madame Blatantowski” and other semi-pseudonymous Victorian figures.
The Deeds of the Disturber has nearly everything one could wish for from a novel in this line: perplexing murders, ominous curses, sinister ceremonies, romantic jealousies, syphilitic aristocrats, and an opium den. A series of incidents involving the young Ramses and his visiting cousins doesn’t reveal itself as a parallel plot until very late in the story. As a continuation of the previous books, it further develops a number of existing characters–not only the Emersons and their household, but also the journalist Kevin O’Connell–and the new ones it adds are all interesting. The mystery element is amply puzzling, and some pieces of it even defeat Amelia herself until all is revealed to the reader’s satisfaction.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters.
Highlights of this fourth volume of Amelia Peabody amusement include: a mysterious redheaded opium-eater going by the name Nemo; the excruciating Mrs. Axhammer of Des Moines, Iowa; the corruption of a village priest; the birds and the bees explained to Ramses Emerson; and the peculiar generosity of the Master Criminal Sethos.
Previous volumes in this series have carried me along by dint of sheer wit and engaging character, but this one also got me fascinated with the plot in the way that a mystery novel is supposed to–goading me to read the last sixty-odd pages at a single sitting.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters.
This third volume of the Amelia Peabody stories brings her young son Ramses Emerson into his own as a character. The “romantic” element between the adult Emersons is even more hilariously overplayed than in the previous books, and the supporting cast is also full of funnier characters than before. [via]
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters.
This second Amelia Peabody book is even funnier than the first. Peters deftly makes her heroine an intrusive narrator with much less self-awareness than she arrogates to herself. There are laughs on nearly every page.
I’m beginning to think that the mystery element in these novels is “self-spoiling”–largely as a consequence of the integrity of Peabody’s character. She wants to impress the reader with her acumen as an intuitive sleuth, and so she retrospectively emphasizes her first distaste of the actual culprit. In a conventional mystery, such strong early suspicions would nearly disqualify a character from being the chief evildoer, but in these stories, they have been a reliable indicator. [via]
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters.
I remember being attracted by the title and cover art of one of Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels about fifteen years ago, and then passing it over once I had determined that it was a piece of mystery fiction without any occultist or hermetic features. But I have since discovered my own interest as a reader in straightforward mystery-adventure set in Victorian Egypt, with an acerbic intellectual woman as the protagonist.
The plot of this first of the Peabody stories is very much of the old-style “Scooby Doo” sort: no murder or theft has been disclosed, and the central puzzle is who should be going to the bother of staging a series of mishaps and ghostly hauntings, and why? The mystery element wasn’t very astounding; I had puzzled out its broad outlines before the end, but that didn’t in any way flatten the pleasure of the read.
Despite the rapid pace of the plot, the characters are well-delineated and entertaining. Having just read a novel by the late-Victorian Ada Leverson, and with a fair amount of other past reading in the period, I can attest that Peters gets the narrative voice of Peabody just right for her character and context, deliberately eccentric as she may be. Her scenic descriptions also recall to me my brief visit to Egypt, even though it was more than a century later that I arrived.
I wouldn’t hold this up as a masterpiece of literature, but I did enjoy it thoroughly. Given that there are now some twenty novels by the author about this character, I doubt it will be the last of them that I read. [via]
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews He Shall Thunder in the Sky: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense by Elizabeth Peters.
This volume of the Amelia Peabody mysteries is set in Egypt during World War I, and follows on the events of A Falcon at the Portal, resolving many of the plot tensions created in that earlier book, as well as a few of even longer standing. Rather than mere pecuniary criminality, this novel’s intrigue centers on military espionage.
For a book with what is basically a very happy ending, He Shall Thunder in the Sky also involves the greatest amount of physical injury to the Emerson family members of any of the books thus far.
This was a bedtime reading selection that I shared with my Other Reader. With some starting and stopping (made workable in part by how well the characters had been established by previous volumes), it took us close to a year to read. But we accelerated toward the end, as the narrative pace built and various revelations were made. [via]
Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Falcon at the Portal: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense by Elizabeth Peters.
There is criminal mystery and egyptological discovery in this book, as in all of the Amelia Peabody novels. But in this 1911-1912 volume, those elements really have to take a back seat to the evolving family drama, especially the difficulties involved in the amorous affections among the younger generation.
The documentary conceit of this series continues to be stretched across the Ameila Peabody journal/memoirs, the third-person self-accounts of her son Ramses Emerson (“Manuscript H”), and the correspondence of Nefret Forth, providing various perspectives and opportunities for dramatic irony. (In the early volumes of the series, Peabody’s solo voice could create such irony in abidingly amusing ways.)
[Spoiler! Hover over to see . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .] While it is very entertaining and tense, of all the Amelia Peabody books I have read, this one would probably stand on its own the worst. It is very much a serial installment, and a decidedly engaging one. [via]