Thursday, 15 January 2015

Elizabeth Peters' glorious Amelia Peabody series

Question of the day - how come I, with my long-standing archaeology obsession, didn’t discover Elizabeth Peters and the glorious Amelia Peabody before? (Scratches head). There is an upside to my tardiness, though, as I am halfway through A River in the Sky, and I’ve got that delicious tingly feeling associated with discovering a great book for the first time, and the will to hunt down all the others. And there are a lot of them. That’s a New Year’s Resolution I can stick with.

For those of you who don’t know, A River in the Sky is one of a series of murder mysteries featuring the formidable Egyptologist Amelia Peabody, who reads like a cross between Gertrude Bell and Indiana Jones (you know, if he were female and knew how to speak to servants).

Peabody, as her equally sharp-tongued husband Emerson, calls her, is the matriarch of a decidedly unconventional clan, who glory in such names as Nefret and Ramses. You could, it appears, get away with a lot in 1910 if you were smart and scholarly and adventurous.

The plot begins with the arrival of two guests for tea, an event to cause Peabody some misgivings at the best of times, given Emerson’s taste in acquaintances - 'Arab sheikhs, Nubian brigands, thieves of various nationalities and one or two forgers.' The story stretches from the idyllic Kent countryside to the ancient sites and dusty excavations of Palestine, as Peabody and Emerson attempt to stop a dubious fellow by the name of Morley from embarking on a catastrophic excavation. Meanwhile their son Ramses, also in Palestine, overhears something he shouldn’t.

The book is a delight to read, full of wit and some laugh out loud moments. There are some great descriptions. Mrs Finney, the proprietess of the White Boar, for instance, was “shaped like a cottage loaf, very tight around the middle and very full above and below.” And, so far, I’ve got a soft spot for the biscuit loving Reverend Panagopolous, whose name is, understandably, a challenge, so much so that the other characters take to calling him Reverend Plato.

There is a bittersweet element to the book, given its setting and the weary realisation that not much has changed. Palestine is still in “a dangerously unsettled region” in 2015 as much as it was in 1910.

Published in 2010, A River in the Sky is the last in the series (of 19 books, yay!), and some have criticised it as being not up to the standard of the other books. That is always a danger of a long-running series, I think, but if you’re coming to it as a total newbie, like me, it shouldn’t take you long to be totally absorbed.

So, over to you - what do you think of the Amelia Peabody novels? And do you have any other fun series to recommend? Let me know!