Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Laughter of Dead Kings, by Elizabeth Peters

 Elizabeth Peters is justly best-known for the Amelia Peabody mysteries--a series based around a husband and wife team of archeologists who work in Egypt during the golden age of archeology, from the 1880s to the discovery of Tutanhkamun's tomb in 1922.  Despite all indications, this book is not from that series.

Instead, it is one of a series of contemporary mysteries staring a character named "Vicky Bliss" who is some sort of art historian, who also solves mysteries, usually involving some form of art theft.  Sadly, this book is not as well crafted as the Amelia Peabody series--Vicky Bliss doesn't have a personality so much as she has either an eating disorder or a tape-worm.  Many many scenes are of people sitting around chewing over plot developments (or lack thereof) while being fed. It's the go-to solution for ending a scene: "I'm starving. Where shall we eat?"  "We can discuss what to do next while drinking beer!"

The plot: somebody has stolen the mummified body of Tutanhkamun from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and Vicky's boyfriend (and former art thief) John Tregarth is the leading suspect. The two of them, plus Vicky's boss Schmidt and their Egyptian friend Feisal set out to discover the thieves and retrieve the body. There is a lot of running around Europe finding nothing before they set off for Luxor, where they still find nothing.

Eventually, however, even these clumsy characters have to stumble over some sort of clues, but for the most part they believe they have to keep their deductions secret from each other so they literally end up stalking each other until they finally all end up in the same room with the criminal.  Who turns out to be a minor, off-stage character with a long-simmering resentment of John Tregarth and so planned the whole thing to look like something John would have done.  Not sure why that was satisfying in any way, but whatever.

The best part of the book is clearly the setting in Egypt, and the best part of that is the scene in the temple of Luxor at night.  While the "detectives" can't seem to keep track of who they are following, the image of the colossal columns and statues seen by moonlight is irresistible.  In the end, the book is mostly notable for being competently written, and having an interesting enough plot to highlight the exotic location.

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