Monday, April 14, 2008

The Curse of the Pharoahs by Elizabeth Peters

I have been listening to several of these mysteries, narrated by Barbara Rosenblatt, and they are an odd lot of books. Like the Martha Grimes series, these are not easily read in order, because the titles are all over the place. (Unlike Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone series, which are alphabetized, or Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum stories, which are numbered in their titles.) As a result, I have listened to the first two books in the series, and the last two. I can report that from that sampling, they remain very consistent in quality and tone.

The heroine of these books is a woman named Amelia Peabody Emerson, who was a spinster in England until at the age of 32 inherited a sizable fortune and used it to travel. She found herself in Egypt and fell in love with the land and its history, as well as an Egyptologist named Radcliffe Emerson. They meet, solve a murder, and fall in love in the first book of the series, "The Crocodile on the Sandbank." "The Curse of the Pharoahs" is the second book, and finds them married for 5 years, parents of a four year old boy they call Ramses, and back in Egypt for the first time at the request of a Lady Baskerville. Her husband, Lord Baskerville, has died and left a bequest to complete the excavation of a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The Emersons are hired to complete the work, which has been disrupted by Baskerville's death and the rumor of a pharoah's curse at work.

These books are an odd treat--Amelia Peabody is by no means an immediately likable character. She is tart, self-satisfied, convinced of her ability to do anything to which she turns her hand--and do it better than anyone else could. Her first person narration is quite wordy, always using eight words where one would do, and full of self-congratulation. Emerson is described as a bull, both in his physical appearance and his terrible temper and tendency to bellow at everyone in his orbit. I am not at all certain I would want to meet either of these people in real life. Yet it is hard to stop listening to these stories. The experience is equivalent to drinking cranberry juice--rather bitter, not very quenching, but satisfying nonetheless.

The Curse of the Pharoahs starts with the death of Lord Baskerville, and the disappearance of his right hand man, after the first hole is made into the sealed wall of the newly discovered tomb. Amelia (or "Peabody," as her husband calls her) is immediately convinced that he was killed by his now missing assistant. Once in Luxor, more bodies turn up, along with a number of suspects, interspersed with descriptions of the process of excavation during the Victorian era. We are also treated to moonlight landscapes, natives both noble and villainous, tales of the ancient gods and kings, Brits of all classes and professions, ghosts and thieves. It is a heady mix, and one I find hard to resist.

Throughout the series is the eternal question of whether there are any more royal tombs to be found. Of course, as the series starts in the 1880s we know that the greatest find of all--Tutankhamun's tomb--has yet to be discovered. There are sly hints scattered throughout the four books I have finished. In the first one, the excavations take place in Amarna, the city of Tutankhamun's father, Ahkenaten, the heretic. In this second book, the tomb the Emersons excavate has been defaced in ancient times--the name of the occupant and his face have been roughly obliterated. The Emersons don't know why, but the reader can speculate that the tomb belongs to an Amarna heretic.

As they start the excavation, Amelia asks her husband where he wants the rubble to be dumped. He pauses for a moment, looking over the landscape and then points to the southwest. "There, by the entrance to the tomb of Ramses VI. Those ruins are only of workmen's huts, there is nothing of interest there."* Of course, as we now know (and as the Emersons discover in the most recent book, "The Tomb of the Golden Bird") those workmen's huts sit atop the entrance to Tutankhamun's tomb. At the end of the book, the Emersons speculate as to the meaning of a pectoral found on the remains of an ancient robber in the tomb they have finished for Lord Baskerville.

"You remember that pectoral we found on the body of the grave robber, Peabody?"
"Of course, Emerson."
"We deciphered the cartouche to be the name of Tutankhamun."
"We thought that might be the name of the occupant."
"Yes, well, it couldn't have been, given what we found there. But do you think, Peabody, that a thief could have robbed two graves in one night?"
"Only if they were very close together, Emerson." And they laugh at such an absurd thought. Although we know better, don't we, reader, even if Tut's tomb isn't discovered until 1922.

*All quotes are approximations, at best, based on my recollection and not intended to be taken as actually from the book.

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