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December 28, 2009

Amelia Peabody series (part 1)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 2:16 pm

So, I’ve finished another mammoth read, this time of the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters (which I gather is a pseudonym for Barbara Mertz). This is one of those series I have a long-running interaction with: I read the first book probably fifteen years ago and didn’t realize it wasn’t a standalone. Then I stumbled on some sequels, read them kind of out of order, started seriously following the series and buying them as they came out, lost interest and stopped. Earlier this year I decided to get serious and re-read the series from scratch and so here’s the review. As usual for this it has some spoilers; this one in particular has a minor surprise plot development at the end of the first book that is inevitably spoiled by discussion of the series, but I’ll try to stay away from the major stuff. If you don’t want any spoilers at all, just pick up Crocodile on the Sandbank and come back to this when you’ve finished. Otherwise, onward:

Right, so. The Amelia Peabody series is an (at time of writing) eighteen-book series, set primarily in Egypt, taking place from the 1880s to the 1920s. It follows a husband-and-wife team of British archaeologists and the (very large) group of friends and relations they pick up along the way. The tones and genres of the books vary, but generally speaking they’re light-hearted combinations of mystery, historical fiction, and romance (in both the modern sense and the King-Solomon’s-Mines sense). A few of the later books get into political-thriller territory a bit as well. The appeal is primarily the charming writing and the series-ness of it all — as can be deduced from the above mention of time period, the books cover multiple decades and the characters age and change appropriately (with a certain amount of poetic license about the dehabilitating effects of old age at this time, admittedly). In general the books are in chronologically advancing order, though the second-to-last one published was apparently the chronologically latest that will be published; the others (like the last published) will fill in gaps earlier in the series. The plan for this review is not to talk about the plots of the individual books so much as the general themes that cut across them — the books considered as mysteries or romances, the books considered as historical fiction, the books considered as examples of how to manage a long series, and the books as political fewmets — this time period/setting is especially rich for that kind of thing, since you have issues of racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism all intersecting. Ready? Awesome!


If you’re looking for these books at the bookstore, they’re almost certainly going to be filed in the mystery section. I’m not quite sure why that is; I think the deal is there is some hierarchy of genres like “Dan Brown book > thriller > sf > fantasy > mystery > historical > romance” where they file by the first one that applies. Or maybe it’s about expected audience — mystery readers will put up with historical detail and romance in their books when historical novel readers might not put up with dead bodies. Anyway, as mysteries they are fine but nothing special. Like many mystery books, the mystery is in there not as a puzzle for the readers but as an engine for the plot, so you can’t, eg, generally solve the mystery before the characters do by a careful study of clues presented, since important clues generally don’t get revealed until the end (but you can certainly sometimes solve the mystery by a careful study of the requirements of the plot). As the series goes along the characters tend to take the individual dead bodies more in stride, which is pretty reasonable for this kind of series: it makes sense both in the sense that it is realistic for the characters to get a little blase about it after seeing so many, and because the reader’s interest is moving more towards the character interaction and less about the plot anyway.

The next obvious classification of these books is as romances. There are a couple kinds of romances typical in mysteries, and this series has all of them. There’s the main character falling in love (the surprise at the end of the first book alluded to above is Amelia falling in love, marrying, and having a kid with one of the other characters), there’s two side-characters having a romance over the course of the book and the main character helping them to get together, there’s two characters obviously being meant for each other but this taking multiple books to occur, there’s the hopelessly-pining-for-someone-they-cannot-have character who is eventually hooked up with someone, and there’s even the bad guy driven by love. Generally speaking it’s all pretty charming and fun. The characters seem generally well-suited to each other and I don’t really roll my eyes at the pairings, except maybe a few hasty ones in the wrap-up of the last book.

This is also notable as a romance for being one of those series that has a protagonist who is in a happy, stable, loving relationship with somebody. What I’d remembered before re-reading is that they were passionate (in the sense of intriguing and tantalizing for the reader) romances despite this, but on re-reading I discovered that wasn’t exactly true. What Peters actually does is a series of tricks — from the second book on she gives Amelia and her husband supposed love interests for their spouses that they worry about, uses kidnapping to separate them, and even throws in an amnesia plot. Right around the time the tricks run out, Peters introduces a new (unrequited) romance for us to fuss about, and that drives the next part of the series, passion-wise.

Overall, the books work pretty well as romances — they’re not heaven-and-earth passionate or shockingly twisty but they hold your attention and work fine as B plots. The books also (as the series continues) gets into the stuff I find just as interesting, the details of how these couples work out their lives after the happily-ever-afters and what compromises and changes they make. But more about that later, when I talk about the books as a series.

The third genre these books could be classified as is the action/adventure/old-school-romance one. Unlike the previous two genres, this one varies in the degree to which it’s present from novel to novel — some novels are pretty much straight mysteries with very little action, while another is a straight-up H. Rider Haggard pastiche (acknowledged in the credits, even). The action mostly serves as a change of pace, to break up the conversation and archaeology that otherwise form the bulk of the novels, and works pretty well in that respect. To some extent it also informs the portrayals of the main characters throughout all the books: the protagonists are generally written pretty pulpy, with one as basically the strongest guy around, another with the cat-like ability to see in the dark, another a talented archer, and so on.

The political/spy thriller genre is the last of the main genres these books touch on. To some extent it takes over from the mystery genre as the plot engine and, really, mysteries and spy stories are pretty closely related. Instead of “who’s the killer?” it’s “who’s the German agent?” and instead of “who will they kill next?” it’s “what are they planning?” But the stakes are higher and there’s a bigger organization involved, which makes it more suitable for books later in the series. It also provides for a slightly more natural fit for the action scenes, explaining why there are more of them. I think probably this is the weakest genre of the series — I feel like Peters mostly put it in to give a few of the characters something to do, and then was stuck with it for the rest of the books, even though she wasn’t really interested in it as much as other parts of the stories. There’s also the necessity of history, of course: since the books cover the WWI period, the characters have to interact with the war; having them be spies is a decent way to explain why they’re not enlisting.


I decided not to stick this under genres, because I don’t think the books are actually in the historical-fiction genre. In a lot of ways they reject it, in fact — on the one hand the characters dislike current (to them) English civilization and spend as little time as possible around it, and on the other hand they embrace some ideals that wouldn’t be likely for another fifty or hundred years. So you don’t get the broad view of their culture you’d expect from historical fiction. But even though the novels don’t really attempt to recreate the time period for the reader, they’re still set there, and the time period is still an important part of the books.

For one thing, this is the golden age of Western, and particularly British, archaeology (meaning who’s doing it, not where it’s being done). The British control Egypt and are free to dig there, and cultural interest in science and history means many people want to. As various countries achieved independence they became much more protective of their nation’s culture and history, making it impossible for rich Westerns to just dig up and walk off with it. Unsurprisingly, this means that there are a lot of famous archaeologists in history, and a bunch of them show up in the books, more than I was able to recognize. So to with famous discoveries — the most famous, of course, being the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

Roughly speaking, there are two ways you can integrate a group of fictional characters into a real, historical narrative. One is the rewrite-history approach: you can say that in your fiction it’s not Marie Curie who discovered radium, it’s your protagonists, and Marie Curie either didn’t exist or didn’t discover it, and your protagonists get all the credit in-world. The other is the secret-history approach: in-world, Marie Curie still gets all the credit for discovering radium; but only she and your protagonist know that she wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for a discussion she and the protagonist had earlier. Or the protagonist discovered it entirely and Marie Curie stole it, that jerk.

Peters could have gone either way with King Tut’s tomb. But the problem was she’d already introduced Howard Carter as a character. She could have shuffled him off-stage quietly and let the Emersons discover the tomb and get the credit, but instead Peters went with the secret-history approach. The Emersons do discover the tomb but nobody knows about it except for the reader; they get to peek in but it’s hushed up; they foil a tomb robbery but can’t tell anyone. And, well, it’s kind of disappointing. Partly because it’s a weak way to end the last book but partly it’s just not very satisfying — they’re archaeologists and the way to do a secret-history thing would be to give them some other discovery instead, even one that gets hushed up (which they do get over the course of the books, so).

The WWI integration works a little better, and I think it’s because it’s not their core competency (nor is it mine, so I don’t know what mistakes/changes Peters makes). Plus WWI is really big, so it’s not much of a problem to add in some extra German activity in Egypt that can be foiled, and secret plots like that getting hushed up is par for the course for spy things, so them not getting any credit is fine. They get to look cool, history is (at least in the books) not changed, and everything’s fine.

And that’s it for this post. The exciting conclusion lies in part 2!

1 Comment

  1. […] is a continuation of my review of the Amelia Peabody series from part 1. You’ll want to read that before going […]

    Pingback by Amelia Peabody series (part 2) « inky has a blog — December 29, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

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