I have written before on this blog about my enthusiasm for the Amelia Peabody novels of Elizabeth Peters. I review The Snake, The Crocodile and the Dog here and The Deeds of the Disturber here. I am slowly rereading the whole series of novels of which there are twenty in total. These are historical crime novels set mainly in Egypt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They are cleverly written and often very amusing.
The series starts with Amelia being left a large sum of money and making her way across Europe on a sightseeing tour. Amelia is indomitable and unstoppable. She finds her home of the heart in Egypt and her enthusiasm for Egyptology, and she marries an archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson. The two of them have a happy and rewarding marriage but in each book they seem to come into contact with murders and dead bodies. Every time this happens Amelia gets involved in seeking out the murderer, they both end up in some sort of danger and everything gets sorted out by the final page.
The author herself was an archaeologist who published books about Ancient Egypt so her descriptions of the locations and the finds are liable to be accurate. The representations of the ways that archaeology is undertaken at the time, the issues that arise and the personalities involved are very entertaining. When I came to read Toby Wilkinson’s book A World beneath the Sands about the Western involvement in Egyptology in this period I recognised a lot of the names and events he described from the Amelia Peabody books and I found that he shared a lot of the same prejudices about certain people that the author ascribes to Amelia (you can read my review of that book here).
The novels are usually narrated by Amelia who has a particular slant on happenings and decided views on people’s characters and what is best for them. By the time we reach The Falcon at the Portal, however,Amelia’s point of view is interspersed with another narrative giving the points of view of her son and the two other young people that Amelia mothers. There is also the inclusion of some letters written from one character to another. This change in viewpoint is necessary because the story now features a lot of action including Ramses (the Emersons’ son), Nefret (a young British orphan brought up in Egypt) and David (an Egyptian man semi-adopted by the family and by this book married to Emerson’s niece). This means that the author can include some romance and have the younger members of the family get involved in activities which are not really possible for the older couple. I like the widening out of the narrative and the different points of view which we see but am glad that we still get a large chunk of the story told by Amelia.
In this book most of the family has come to Egypt to excavate. They find that accusations are being made against David which could result in his imprisonment – the author takes the opportunity to make some pertinent points about racism and the vulnerability of the local people under imperial rule. Then someone tries to kill members of the group. Suspicion falls on several young people also involved in local archaeological digs but it is difficult to work out the motive of the attacks and thus to stop them. Then a young woman they know is found dead and Ramses comes under suspicion because she had been pursuing him which raises the stakes even higher. The author does wrap this story up by the end of the book but for once she leaves some issues unresolved, mostly about the private lives of the family but also to do with Amelia’s nephew. I am obviously eager to get on with the next book in the series to see these concluded satisfactorily.
These books are cosy crime at its best. The author writes with a knowing dry wit and in the Emerson family and their friends she has created a delightful group of people who you feel that you know and understand. During the course of the books the political climate in Egypt is a factor and the author also shows how culture is changing during the period. The plots are slightly outrageous and the way that the crimes are solved is unbelievable but the books are far too enjoyable for that to be an issue. I’ve owned the earliest of these books for about thirty years and periodically reread the series, as I am doing now. I am never disappointed by revisiting these old favourites.