The Daily Bongo

The Serpent on the Crown

One of my favorite authors is Elizabeth Peters. She is known as MPM because she writes under three names. Barbara Mertz is her real name, and she writes non-fiction pieces on Egyptology in that name. She has written two books as Barbara Mertz: Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt. As Barbara Michaels, she writes fiction that falls in the supernatural mystery genre. These are the woo-woo books with ghostly happenings. Finally as Elizabeth Peters, she write regular mysteries. As Elizabeth Peters, she has written series with Vicky Bliss, Jacqueline Kirby, and Amelia Peabody. The Amelia Peabody books outnumber the other two, and Ms. Peters has been concentrating on these mysteries exclusively for the last few years. The Serpent on the Crown is the sixteenth and latest book in the Amelia Peabody series.

The Amelia Peabody series started with Crocodile in the Sandbank which was published in 1975, but was set in Egypt of 1884. Amelia meets Radcliff Emerson, an Egyptologist, in the first book. They marry, and then begin a series of adventures that always seem to correspond to their return to Egypt for the archaeological season, which corresponded to the winter months since manual labor wasn't done in the heat of the summer months. The family grows with the addition of a son, Ramses and a girl, Nefret, who is found in the wilds of Egypt, and taken in by the family. The books are mysteries, but they also give the reader a taste of the history of Egyptian archaeology and Egyptology in general. Some of the characters who populate the books are real life characters such as Gustave Maspero and Howard Carter. The Serpent in the Crown takes place in 1922, right before Howard Carter makes his discover of King Tut's tomb, and you can feel the discovery hanging over the story. Not that the characters know, but you as the reader know that the discovery is imminent. We see poor Howard Carter as someone who may be losing funding from Lord Carvenon unless something comes up in the 1922 season.

The books are written for the most part in the first person, and are similar to the adventures of a real life person, Amelia Edwards who was a novelist and Egyptologist from the late nineteenth century. The Amelias (Edwards and Emerson) are strong womem who don't think that a woman's place is in the home. The women who are shrinking violets are not looked upon kindly in the books. Instead we have women who take charge and think nothing of taking an active role in the dig and in the investigations. Amelia Peabody even wears pants to the shock of all around her because it's easier to get around that way. Also, she wears a belt around her waist with all the tools she would need, including a gun. One of her concessions to femininity is the parasol that she carries. Not to worry though, with a tug it becomes a sword to fend off the Master Criminal, who is behind every evil deed that befalls the Emersons. The Mummy movies with Brandon Fraser also remind me alot of the Amelia books. It makes me wonder if someone who read the books was involved in writing the screenplay.

By the time we catch up with the Emersons in Serpent, it's 1922, the Great War is long over. Ramses and Nefret are married and the parents of two precocious fraternal twins, Carla and David John. David John is identical to Ramses at the age of five, and able to carry on detailed discussions on ancient Egyptian life. Of course, no stay in Egypt would be complete for the Emersons without some sort of murder and mayhem. The story starts with the appearance of Magda Petherick, widow of Pringle Petherick (collector of Egyptian artifacts) and author of popular fiction, who drops off a cursed, golden statue--worth thousands of pounds. The statue comes with a curse that is carried out by a black afrit, or evil spirit. The afrit has killed her husband and is now after Magda. Who better to leave such a cursed object with than the Father of Demons, Emerson, who is known for his exorcisms. The question becomes "Where did this magnificent golden statue come from, and is there an undiscovered tomb out here with more treasures?" The Petherick children show up at the Emersons' next with gun waving and a demand to return the statue. The story becomes more tangled with the disappearance of Magda and attempted break-ins to the Emerson household. Will there be another dead body or another shirt ruined? The action takes us through the Valley of the Kings, Cairo and Luxor.

As a fan of Elizabeth Peters' novels, I have read all of the Amelia Peabody books. I have to admit that in recent years, I have found myself becoming tired with the books. The plots did not seem as riviting, and I was finding myself really not caring if Ramses and Nefret got together or not. Serpent is a return to the good, old adventure plots of the earlier Amelias. I do miss the Master Criminal, and although there are twists and turns, they aren't as thrilling and death defying as the earlier books. Nefret is a rather boring character, and the precocious children are a return to the annoyances of Ramses as a young child in the earlier books. This is a return to the older style, but still with a bit missing because the characters at times just seem to be shadows of themselves. This isn't a problem with this book, but with the series as a whole in the later books. That doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy the story. I did, and I would recommend this book to a reader, although if you have not read an Amelia Peabody mystery, I would suggest starting with the Crocodile on the Sandbank The one sad element of the book is that it is now becoming obvious that Amelia is aging, and there can't be many more adventures ahead for her. We find that she dyes her hair and that she is slowing and tiring more than she used to. The Master Criminal, Sethos, is a much watered down version of himself, and even Emerson seems to not bellow as much as he once did. I think that Ms. Peters is trying to tie up some loose ends and connections between this series of books and the Vicky Bliss series. It has been the topic of much discussion among aficiandos of the books that John Smythe, the male lead in the Vicky Bliss books, is an Emerson. Personally, I would love for the next Elizabeth Peters book to be a Vicky Bliss, and I would love to see the tie between the Emersons and Smythe confirmed. I believe that Ms. Peters has committed to another Peabody though. Ah well, at least we will find out how Emerson feels about Howard Carter finding King Tut's tomb.

Monday, April 25, 2005