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Mystery author # 12: Elizabeth Peters

I read three of Peters’ books: two non-series romantic mysteries, and the first book in the Amelia Peabody historical mystery series. I think I have got a pretty good sampling of her work. Peters also writes suspense stories under the name of Barbara Michaels, and I have one of those books in my TBR stash that I plan on reviewing.

Title: Crocodile on the Sandbank
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Amelia Peabody
Year of publication: 1975
Availability: In print
Type of mystery: Supernatural (?)
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: (mostly) Egypt, 1880’s
Some themes: Archaeology, stalking, mummies, adventure, feminism, romance

Amelia Peabody, a spinster in her early 30’s, is left a considerable fortune by her father and decides to go on a Grand Tour of Europe and Egypt. In Italy she rescues a young, destitute English lady, Evelyn, who has been “ruined” (loss of sexual innocence without the blessings of marriage was a big deal for women in those days) and cruelly abandoned by her Italian lover. Amelia takes Evelyn on as a companion, and together they travel to Egypt and sail up the Nile, pursued by Evelyn’s cousin who wants to marry her in spite of her loss of respectability. Evelyn doesn’t want him, especially after clapping her eyes on young archaeologist Walter Emerson. The friends visit Walter and his short-tempered elder brother, Radcliffe, at an archaeological dig and before too long the ghost of a mummy is seen in the night, scaring away all the Egyptian workers on the dig. But is the mummy real, or is it, as would appear, very much alive and after Evelyn?

Elizabeth Peters is an Egyptologist, an archaeologist who specialises in Egypt, and thus eminently equipped to write about the subject, and it shows. The archaeological dig is accurately described (I have history books on the subject that agree with Peters’ descriptions) and I have no doubt the archaeological and historical information is correct. This is just the icing on a rather tasty cake.

Amelia is a strong character, a woman who is in no doubt as to what she likes and doesn’t like, an ardent feminist and (she thinks) confirmed spinster. Her first person narrative is humorous, often quite satirical towards herself and others. The other main characters are equally well drawn, and before we meet Radcliffe Emerson, we wonder what kind of man it would take to sweep this eminently practical (in matters of the heart at least) Victorian spinster off her feet. Evelyn and Walter are both more gentle persons, but both show a tenacious nature when provoked. Egypt is just as much a character in the story as the people are, and the descriptions of that ancient land are obviously first hand.

The story moves slowly, but the clipped style and short sentences make it seem to move faster. The style is a bit off-putting at first, but once I got used to it, within a chapter or two, the story sucked me in and kept me reading until I was finished with the book. The part of the story that covers Amelia’s journey from Italy and up the Nile beautifully parodies travelogues of the era, and as I am now reading a real travelogue by an Englishwoman from the same general time period, I am constantly coming across phrases and attitudes that remind me of Amelia.

The mystery is fairly mysterious, but not unsolvable, and the reader (naturally) catches on to what is happening much sooner than the characters do. At least I did.

Rating: An excellent start to what promises to be an excellent series. 4+ stars

Title: Devil May Care
Year of publication: 1977
Availability: In print
Type of mystery: Supernatural (?), country house
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Virginia, USA, 1970’s
Some themes: Ghosts, cats and dogs, romance, past ill-doings

Ellie, young, pretty, and recently engaged, agrees to house-sit for her aunt Kate for two weeks. She looks forward to spending some time alone in Kate’s big, rambling mansion, as her fiancé can be a bit overbearing at times, and she needs time to think seriously about the relationship. But on her first night alone in the house, an apparition disturbs her peace: a transparent young man in 19th century costume appears on the landing and then disappears. The next night it’s a woman and two men out on the lawn. Ellie isn’t afraid, just surprised, but her curiosity is aroused the next day when Donald, the neighbour’s son, comes in to mow the lawn. He is the splitting image of the first apparition. After this, events begin to move quickly, and more apparitions are seen, not just by Ellie. Things turn serious when Kate’s neighbour and friend, Ted, is found in the library, having had a heart attack while trying to stop a burglar. Ellie and Donald figure out that the burglar is after an old book of local history that Ellie bought for Kate, but why, and how were the “ghosts” managed?

The style of this story is quite different from the previous book. The pace is slow right until about the last third of the book, but there is plenty happening, and the humour is milder and not as satirical as in Crocodile..., while being able to cause the same kind of explosive laughter. The characterisations are not as good - the only really rounded character is the puckish Kate, who does not appear in much of the story. The rest are all basically stock characters, from Ellie’s stiff and proper yuppie boyfriend, the villain, Donald, and Ellie herself. Not that it matters - the story is plot driven and the characters are just along for the ride. Peters manages to capture a spooky, supernatural atmosphere, which she lightens with the escapades of Kate’s pets, a collection of cowardly dogs, curious cats and a rat who rules the household like a king.

Review: A light and funny supernatural tale with a romantic twist. 3 stars.

Title: The Copenhagen Connection
Year of publication: 1982
Availability: In print
Type of mystery: Kidnapping, treasure hunt
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Denmark (mostly Copenhagen), 1980’s
Some themes: Kidnapping, theft, treasure, romance

Elizabeth Jones is on her way to a holiday in Denmark, but an accident puts her in the position of being able to offer her services as secretary to her idol, Nobel-prize winning author Margaret Rosenberg. Starry-eyed Elizabeth is soon brought down to earth by Christian, Margaret’s stuffed shirt of a son, who insists his mother is not quite sane and should be kept within arm’s reach at all times. When Margaret disappears and a bizarre ransom note is sent to them, they are flung into an adventure that has something to do with Queen Margarethe the first of Denmark. But what, and how did Margaret become involved?

Here is a story that is not quite as funny as Devil..., but which makes up for it with tight plotting and more realistic characters. The humour here is rather in the tone of the story than in the text, except for some situational gags that recall a silent era slapstick comedy. Margaret is eccentric, to say the least, her son is a stuffed shirt, as sometimes will happen with the conventional children of highly creative people, and Elisabeth is opinionated and a bit silly, but ultimately level-headed and realistic. All three change and develop through the story.

The plotting is, as I said earlier, tight and the story moves at a fast pace with no digressions. The criminals are somewhat stereotypical, but not unbearably so.

Rating: An entertaining romp through Copenhagen and the Danish countryside. 3 stars.

Author rating: Peters is an accomplished writer who writes with humour and is good at creating funny scenes and good plots. I will definitely be looking for more of her books, especially the adventures of Amelia Peabody.


Anonymous said…
I read my first Amelia Peabody book by Elizabeth Peters by accident. Actually, "read" isn't the right word since I listened to the audiobook (I LOVE I was hooked. The first one I "read" wasn't the first book, but the 4th. So I went back and "read" the others, and am working my way through the entire series. They are remarkably captivating. Peters does a brilliant job of creating characters that I can see so clearly in my head. The plots are just tricky enough that they're not easy to figure out, but not so convoluted that you get disgusted.

I love Peabody and her husband Emerson and their incredibly precocious son Ramses.

Reading these books is a real treat.

Steven List

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