The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

It’s been years since I last read an Amelia Peabody mystery and when I picked up The Mummy Case, the third in the series, I was concerned that I had left too big a gap between books. Luckily, this seems to be a series you can easily return to after a long absence as each book, at least so far, has worked as a standalone mystery.

The Mummy Case is set in 1894 and opens with married Egyptologists Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson at home in England planning their next trip to Egypt. Amelia dreams of exploring the pyramids of Dahshoor on this visit, but her hopes are shattered with the discovery that her husband has left it too late to submit their application and permission has already been granted to another archaeologist. Amelia and Emerson are offered Mazghunah instead – a barren and uninspiring site believed to be of little historical significance – and they reluctantly accept.

Despite their lack of enthusiasm, the expedition proves to be much more exciting than either of them had expected. Before they even reach their destination, they become caught up in the murder of an antiquities dealer in Cairo who is found dead in his own shop – and when they eventually arrive at Mazghunah, Amelia becomes convinced that somebody connected with the murder has followed them there. When a scrap of papyrus is stolen from their camp and an entire mummy case belonging to a visiting tourist also disappears, even Emerson has to agree that they have stumbled onto the trail of a clever and ruthless Master Criminal!

Unlike their first two mysteries (described in Crocodile on the Sandbank and The Curse of the Pharaohs), Amelia and Emerson have help in solving this one. For the first time, their young son Ramses has accompanied them on a dig and while he often proves to be more of a hindrance, getting into trouble at every opportunity, he also manages to appear at several crucial moments to save the day. Described as ‘catastrophically precocious’ by Amelia, he sounds more like a seventy-year-old professor with a speech impediment than a seven-year-old child and although I’ve been told that he improves as a character later in the series, in this book I found him extremely irritating. However, he’s clearly not meant to be taken too seriously – and to be fair, Amelia finds him irritating too:

The old woman’s cacodemonic laughter broke out again…”The wisdom of the Prophet is yours, great lady. Accept an old woman’s blessing. May you have many sons – many, many sons…”

The idea was so appalling I think I turned pale.

I enjoyed this book, despite Ramses, but I don’t think it was as strong as the previous two in the series. The plot seemed to meander all over the place and it was easy to lose sight of what the central mystery was that the characters were trying to solve. I do still love Amelia and Emerson, though – their good-natured bickering is always entertaining! It was also interesting to learn a little bit about Mazghunah and its disappointingly incomplete ‘pyramids’ and to meet the real-life archaeologist Jacques de Morgan – although seeing him only through Amelia’s eyes gives us a slightly biased impression as he is their rival and the man who is excavating the much more attractive site of Dahshoor!

I am looking forward to continuing with the fourth book in the series, Lion in the Valley.

Book 43/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 2 read for R.I.P. XVI

The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters

Curse of the Pharaohs This is the second book in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series. I read the first one, Crocodile on the Sandbank, two years ago in January 2012 and enjoyed it, so I’m not sure why it has has taken me so long to get round to reading this one.

The Curse of the Pharaohs is set in the late Victorian period and begins five years after the previous book ended. Amelia is happily married to the archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and they now have a young son, Ramses. Despite longing to return to their work in Egypt, Amelia and Emerson have spent most of the last five years at home in England because they’re unable to agree on what to do about Ramses. But when Lady Baskerville, an old friend of Emerson’s whose husband has recently died, asks Emerson to continue Lord Baskerville’s excavation of an Egyptian tomb, he and Amelia are unable to resist. To make things even more interesting, there are suspicious circumstances surrounding Lord Baskerville’s death – and a possible link with an ancient pharaoh’s curse.

Leaving Ramses with his aunt and uncle, Amelia and Emerson head for Egypt where they begin the exciting task of excavating the pharaoh’s tomb, but soon there are more deaths and more attacks, often accompanied by sightings of a mysterious woman dressed in white. Amelia is now convinced that Lord Baskerville was murdered and that the murderer must be one of the people she and Emerson have met since their arrival in Luxor: the Irish Daily Yell reporter Kevin O’Connell maybe, or could it be Madame Berengaria, who believes she is the reincarnation of an Egyptian Queen, the rich American Mr Vandergelt, or even Lady Baskerville herself?

Beyond the actual mystery – which I found stronger and more complex than the one in the first book – there are two things I particularly liked about this book (and they are the same things I liked about the previous one). The first is the setting. Egypt is always fascinating to read about! I like the fact that although Peters herself has a PhD in Egyptology, she doesn’t go too deeply into the technical details of the subject, so that even those of us who know very little about Egyptian pharaohs, hieroglyphs or archeological digs can follow what’s happening and share in the enthusiasm Amelia and Emerson have for their work.

The second thing I love is Amelia’s narrative voice. From other people’s reviews of books in this series it seems that a lot of readers find Amelia’s strong, opinionated personality very off-putting at first. Luckily that hasn’t been a problem for me; it only took two or three chapters of Crocodile on the Sandbank for me to get used to her and start to warm to her. I think her practical, no-nonsense style fits perfectly with the entertaining plots and the ridiculous situations she finds herself in.

I enjoyed this second book as much as the first, although I did find the two very similar and while I’m looking forward to the third, The Mummy Case, I am concerned that they might lose their appeal unless I try to space them out. However, I have another sixteen or seventeen books to go, I think, so I’ll try not to let too much time go by before picking up book three! I can’t wait to get to know Ramses better in future books. He’s still just a lisping baby in this book but I’m looking forward to him being old enough to join Amelia and Emerson in their adventures!

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, a series of historical mystery novels set in Egypt and following the adventures of a Victorian lady with a passion for archaeology.

When we first meet Amelia at the beginning of the novel, she has recently inherited a fortune following her father’s death and is planning to use some of her money to visit Egypt. Passing through Rome on her way to Cairo, Amelia rescues a young woman, Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been abandoned by her lover and the two become friends and travelling companions. After they arrive in Egypt, Amelia and Evelyn meet archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson and his younger brother Walter, who are working on a dig at Amarna. The two women soon team up with the Emerson brothers to tackle a mysterious mummy who seems to be stalking them at night!

Amelia is the book’s first person narrator, but I wasn’t sure at first if I was going to like her. She has a very sharp, witty narrative voice and for the first few chapters I found her alternatively amusing and irritating. Luckily though, after I got to know her better I started to warm to her. As well as being outspoken and sarcastic she’s also brave, intelligent and loyal to her friends – and definitely not a conventional Victorian woman! Emerson is a very strong character too and I enjoyed watching his relationship with Amelia develop.

Although I am interested in history, Ancient Egypt has never been one of my favourite subjects to read about, but Amelia and Emerson are so enthusiastic about Egypt and archaeology that I ended up with more enthusiasm for the subject too. The adventures they have exploring tombs, discovering mummies and deciphering hieroglyphics all sound so fascinating!

The mystery itself wasn’t one of the novel’s strong points though. It was hard to believe that someone as intelligent as Amelia wasn’t able to immediately work out what was happening and who the villain was. But like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries, I think the charm of this book was in the setting and the characters (or Amelia and Emerson, at least – the other characters didn’t have a lot of depth) rather than the mystery.

The overall tone of Crocodile on the Sandbank is light and entertaining and although I’m not completely convinced about this series yet, I did like this book enough to want to read the second one. I’ll remember to pick up The Curse of the Pharaohs next time I want to relax with another fun Egyptian adventure.