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December 29, 2009

Amelia Peabody series (part 2)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 8:58 pm

This is the second half of my review of the Amelia Peabody series from part 1. You’ll want to read that before going on.


I’m not in any way a serious scholar, or even a serious amateur, in political analysis. But, basically, it’s impossible to read a book about rich Brits in Egypt during the Victorian period and not have a few thoughts.

The thing the books mostly want to talk about is sexism or, rather, feminism. The main character is pretty stridently pro-women’s-rights, but given the time period this mainly involves pants (or, since they’re British, trousers). There are occasional views of the suffragette movement but they’re mostly played with laughs as is, really, all of Amelia’s feminism. But things a little more complicated than that, right? I mean, we know feminism “wins” eventually — at least to an extent Amelia would recognize as winning — so if she gets blown off by jerky guys, the joke is on them at the end. And she doesn’t get blown off all the time — there are numerous incidents where she kicks ass and forces people to admit she’s competent, at least for the moment.

But naturally that isn’t all there is to say about sexism here. As mentioned earlier, the many of the characters in the books come from a firm grounding in old-school adventure novels. And so the guys have abilities like “really strong” and “expert climber” and the girls have abilities like “expert doctor” and “friend to all animals”. So when you get into action scenes you still end up with prowess being shown off by guys 75% of the time. It’s definitely not 100%, and there is plenty of use of the “character other people don’t take seriously shows she can kick ass too” thing, but it’s not anything like 50-50 either.

There’s also, and I flinch a little to mention it, a virginity thing. I’m not sure exactly how much of this is the romance genre conventions coming through and how much is the author’s own biases or what. But, ok, lemme lay it out (and this has some spoilers, sorry). There’s a guy and a girl who are clearly meant for each other. They’re both surrounded by admirers; there’s a strong implication that the guy is actually sleeping with some of them (a later book states it without ambiguity), while the girl’s exact relationship with her admirers is unclear. At one point in the early part of the romance, the guy says explicitly (not to her) that he doesn’t clear who the girl sleeps with as long as she ends up with him eventually. So far, reasonable. Then they sleep together, then there’s A Misunderstanding and the girl gets married to someone else for a month or two, then has a miscarriage. Then it’s stated that the girl didn’t actually sleep with the guy she was married to (!) and the miscarriage pregnancy was as a result of sleeping with the hero guy. Then a later book states that she’s never slept with anyone else and, essentially, was conditioned by her dad not to sleep with anyone until she meets hero guy and he wins her over. Seriously, wtf. In a sense it’s not any worse than what you get in classic adventure books but to have the series seem progressive and then do a big reversal weirds me out, especially, since so much is made of feminist ideals in other contexts in the book.

The other political issues involved in the books are generally all subtext, not explicitly in-text like Amelia’s feminism. The first area to talk about is racism, I think, though really all the -isms are tied together. Generally speaking, racism in the books is approached with what is usually called twentieth-century morality, although given that the books finish up in 1922 that is a little confusing. But that’s appropriate because it’s also confusing when you try to work out the details of what people mean by “twentieth-century morality”. Like, there are totally incidents in the books when protagonists are racist; it’s just that they see/are shown the error of their ways afterwards. There are also plenty of Egyptians who are shown as intelligent and capable (which isn’t too unusual) and they’re really equal, not separate-but-equal, to the point of intermarriage (which is unusual for this kind of book). There are several cases of people of mixed Egyptian and European background, and, particularly in the later books, this is explored and some uncomfortable areas are poked at (not deeply, but it’s there).

But, like most books where people talk about the protagonists having twentieth-century morality, this series is almost exclusively focused on individual (anti-)racism and not group (anti-)racism. The main thing about the civil rights movement — the thing that made it a movement — is it involved collective action by a lot of people to try to change the status of people as a class. In this context, racism issues are inextricably tied up with colonialist ones, since you can’t really get rid of anti-Egyptian policies as long as the country is ruled by European powers.

The series begins shortly after Britain has taken control of Egypt from France, covers WWI, where the implicit protectorate becomes official, and ends in 1922, the year Egypt gets fledgling independence (fledgling in the sense that the British didn’t actually relinquish full control by any means). Along the way historical incidents certainly get mentioned — the Dinshaway Incident shows up with one character griping about what an idiotic way the British officials are handling things — but they generally don’t take center stage. When the independence movement does take center stage, it’s not in a creditable way: the movement’s members are at best idiots and at worst German agents working to destabilize the country to aid in the war effort.

Of course, part of the issue here is the historicity thing I mentioned above. The protagonists in this kind of book more or less can’t fail; therefore, if they got seriously involved in anti-racist or anti-colonialist work, they’d have to make progress, which would change history, probably radically. So they don’t. (One of the protagonists is very pro-nationalism, but he’s basically talked out of it by the other characters. I guess it’s good it’s brought up at all but it’s pretty weak to have it fizzle out like it does.)

While they criticize plenty of individual actions by individual British officials, the books never offer any real critique of Britain’s actions as a whole, and I guess you can’t really expect them to. They have the sort of gentle Anglophilia you expect from a certain kind of American author, and the protagonist’s rah-rah patriotism is presented as one of her charming quirks. In a sense it’s the whole in-group/out-group thing: the protagonists are British and hence are allowed to criticize Britain, but they close ranks against outsiders attempting to do so.

Classism isn’t quite as important to these books as the others, since the action generally stays out of the clubs and fancy hotels, but it’s definitely present. Archaeology is inherently about money — if you don’t have a patron and aren’t independently wealthy, you can’t be an archaeologist. The protagonists are conveniently in the latter camp, so they don’t have to make the kind of tradeoffs having a patron implies, but the books do spend some time looking into people who aren’t so fortunate. The series also spends some time poking fun at the British (and American) upper classes, but this has the air of a lawyer who tells lawyer jokes — basically there to make the people feel better about themselves for their privilege, not to provide any kind of serious critique of the system.

The other obvious reason why money is an issue is just, well, rich Europeans come and swank around starving Egyptians. This is examined a bit but not too much and, really, it’s a complicated issue. Presumably the villagers who are hired need the money; we’re still arguing today over how exploitative employing third-world labor is. There’s one character who does feel some moral obligations attached to her money, enough that she puts most of it towards a particular serious cause; she’s the only real example but clearly Peters is thinking about this stuff to some extent. Then again, it’s an easy call to make to say “oh, rich people should spend their money to make life better for everyone”; it’s harder when you get into the details of the situation, where the protagonists are rich and hence can afford to dig up artifacts in pursuit of knowledge or fame or whatever, while the native Egyptians are usually digging up artifacts to sell because, hey, they need the money (and, again, who are they selling them to? Rich Europeans, not other natives).

I’ve written a lot about the political undertones here but I think it’s an important part of the book, even if it’s not the author’s focus. It doesn’t bleed into the, say, mysteries as much as you might expect from my writing here — like, the biggest villains in the series are definitely rich white males. But on the other hand, mystery novels are about identifying the seeming Good Guy who is actually a Bad Guy in disguise, so it’s not actually anti-racist to have the bad guy be a white guy. I guess the summary is that nothing in the books is likely to make you so uncomfortable you can’t read them, but there are almost certainly going to be a few spots that make you roll your eyes. Then again, the books were written starting in 1975, so probably there should be some stuff that makes you roll your eyes. Which brings us to the final topic.

Writing a Long Series

The series has eighteen books, and spans about thirty years of real time. This is a lot. One of my particular interests as a reader is looking at how authors manage the logistics of multiple books, and this series is obviously a prime example of that.

One obvious set of issues is, roughly, “how to manage having so much stuff”. If each book introduces three or four new characters, then by the last book, you have fifty or sixty characters for the readers to keep track of (one of the last books has a dramatis personae to help out; it’s two or three pages in small type). It’s not just a hassle for the reader, though, it’s also a hassle for the author.

One problem that comes up for the author is side-character roles starting to bump into each other. If the protagonists uncover a plot, which character from a previous book do they go to, the city police chief or the British high commissioner? Which linguist do you want in a scene, the renowned-in-his-field uncle or the extraordinary-natural-talent son? Which wacky butler figure should serve dinner, the crotchety English butler or the busybody Egyptian housekeeper? The last case gets lampshaded a bit in the books, in fact, with the two characters showing up together in some scenes and fighting over who gets to serve dinner. You can (to some extent) shuffle characters around — say X has to stay in England for the winter or Y is away at school/a job/whatever — but it starts to get like the comic-book dilemma where Superman has to be out of town for Plastic Man to have a chance to fight any crime. Plus there’s the issue where you have a section in a book recapping new characters from the past few books, and it starts to sound like “and here’s our quirky butler, and here’s our quirky daughter-in-law, and here’s our quirky excavation assistant, and here’s our quirky cousin, and her sons, the quirky twins”; individually introduced they’re fine, but in a list it gets a little much.

The too-many-to-track issue affects core characters just as much, albeit in a different form — it becomes about quirks, not characters. These kind of books generally give each core character a handful of quirks the author rattles off when they’re first mentioned to try to give new readers a handle on who they are. So Emerson has sapphire-blue eyes, is powerfully built, is a well-known archaeologist, is known as the Father of Curses, and he and the protagonist have an excellent sex life. This is an example of it working pretty well — these traits are all consistent and can appear in almost every story. On the other hand, the protagonist has a batman-style utility belt and a habit of translating an ancient Egyptian fable which mysteriously relates to the current case, or at least she does when Peters remembers. Or maybe it’s not so much not remembering as getting tired of it; presumably there are only so many times you can have a fable relating to the current case before it gets old.

And that in turn ties into the other major group of issues in a series, “how do you deal with prior commitments you’ve made”. The one comment I’ve seen from Peters about this is, more or less, “if I’d known the first book was going to start a series, I would have made the protagonist younger”. Age is one obvious commitment you’re stuck with*, though you can fudge a little about how characters react (physically and mentally) to aging. Another is about placement in history; if you set the first book in the 1880s and run for 30 years you basically guarantee you’re going to have to touch on WWI. The character-quirks thing above sometimes falls in here too: Peters actually has two characters who have the quirk “good at doctoring”, but only one of them has actually gone to med school and so on — the authorial technique seems to be to phase out references to the first character’s doctoring as the second one gets more skilled, so as not to step on toes, but you’re still stuck with a thing where you have two doctors on call.

*Or may be stuck with, depending on the series style; there’s one Nero Wolfe book where he and Archie work with an eighteen-year-old, and then another book where Nero and Archie, totally untouched by age, work with the (formerly-) eighteen-year-old’s eighteen-year-old son. But Peters sticks to consistent time for everyone in the series, probably because it’s complicated enough to manage things as it is.

Of course, you’re only committed to the extent you force yourself to be. This series has a number of dramatic reveals and fundamental shifts in certain characters’ motivations and plot-roles. While sometimes, particularly in the last couple books, this feels a little forced, it’s a good technique to have to keep interest in a long-running series. It’s also interesting to see how this works in as Peters starts publishing out-of-sequence books; in the only one that’s been published thus far, characters seem to be written as a merger of their attitudes from the last book and their attitudes as written at the appropriate chronological point in the series — I’m not sure if this is intended to smooth the transition or if it’s a matter of Peters being out of practice writing them in the earlier form.

Overall, like I alluded to above, this is really my favorite thing about the series. This is the same advantage television has over movies; the combination of extra minutes of screen time and real-time delay between episodes means you can do some deep and engaging character development. And it’s actually relatively easy as an author to do it: as long as you don’t change what the readers like about the characters and keep enough of a handle on the series to keep bringing back older characters and events at the proper intervals, the readers will do the bonding work on their own.


So, yeah, I guess that is the review. The series is really too big to review with a simple “like” or “didn’t like” (or, rather, it’s going to have multiple entries in both columns, but obviously if I didn’t like it overall I wouldn’t have read the whole thing). If you want to start at the beginning, which is certainly the best place, that would be Crocodile on the Sandbank. As mentioned above, the author didn’t intend it originally as part of a series so it’s a little different plot-wise, but tone-wise it’s a pretty good indicator of what the books are like. If for some reason you are the sort of person who wants to jump into the middle of the plot when the character relationships are starting to pick up, I guess you should start with The Ape Who Guards the Balance. Either way, check these books out!


  1. […] that’s it for this post. The exciting conclusion lies in part 2! Comments […]

    Pingback by Amelia Peabody series (part 1) « inky has a blog — December 29, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

  2. I read these for years. They’re certainly character-driven mysteries. At some point I stopped carry about any of the characters. Finally I got to a point in the series I couldn’t finish any of the books. “Children of the Storm” and “Guardian of the Horizon” were ones I picked up, but never managed to finish. For years, I knew Howard Carter and Tutankhamen were coming, and at one time I was excited about that, but it never came (I guess until the most recent one).

    Looking back, I can’t remember anything about any particular novel in the series, except the H Rider Haggard pastiche, “The Last Camel Died at Noon”. Personally, I’d recommend that unless people want to blow a month or two on the entire series, just read that one book.

    Comment by Allen Garvin — January 14, 2010 @ 6:30 am

  3. Yeah, those two were roughly the point where I burned out the first time. I think she was trying to decide how the series was going to go after the romance got resolved; the last books are basically her fiddling around with stuff trying to get some momentum going again.

    I agree Last Camel is one of the stronger ones, even though it misses out on some of the snappy dialogue of the earlier books. It’s a pretty good choice for a standalone.

    Comment by inky — January 14, 2010 @ 8:59 pm

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