Generally, when I like one book by an author, I will like most books by the same author. A notable exception to this rule for me is Barbara Mertz / Elizabeth Peters / Barbara Michaels. Ms. Mertz has written upwards of fifty books under her various names. I have tried a number of them, finished very few, and didn’t much enjoy those I did finish--EXCEPT: The Amelia Peabody series written under her Elizabeth Peters pen name. And astonishingly (to me, at least) this series is my favorite mystery series.
The series falls into the cozy category of mystery fiction. It features an amateur detective and has little violence. Instead of an English manor house, the setting of most of the books in this series is Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like Dick Francis’s novels which always involve horse racing, these stories always have a connection to Egyptian archeology. Ms. Mertz has a unique qualification to write books about Egyptian archeology, for at the age of 23, she received a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago. (Indeed, she is the youngest person ever to have done so.) She wanted to be an archeologist, but was unable to get a job in the field. She has said about this:
Positions in Egyptology were few and far between, and in the post-World-War II backlash against working women, females weren't encouraged to enter that or any other job market. I recall overhearing one of my professors say to another, "At least we don't have to worry about finding a job for her. She'll get married."
In fact, back then the only way a woman could work in the field in Egypt was as an assistant to her husband. Ms. Mertz did indeed marry a student of Egyptology and looked forward to working with him, and then he changed his major. She says she forgave him, but it was very difficult. So she settled down to raise her children, but being bright and energetic she looked around for something to do with her spare minutes. Thus her writing career began. When she wrote the first Amelia Peabody story, she did not conceive of Amelia as a series character, and there is a gap of six years between the publishing dates of the first and second books in the series.
Ms. Mertz puts a lot of time and effort into getting the details right in these books. The real-life archeologists who were doing work at the time of Amelia’s adventures feature as minor characters in the novels, and Ms. Mertz has taken great pains to make sure that if one of her books mentions that Flinders Petrie was digging at Amarna that year, he really was. And when it mentions that Howard Carter was the Department of Antiquities’ Inspector for Upper Egypt in a certain year, he really was. She also makes sure that the details of what was known and believed about ancient Egypt, and the methods in current usage among archeologists are accurate within her books. If you have any interest at all in archeology or ancient Egypt, the books are a pleasure to read just for the details that fill the Amelia books.
However, the accurate Egyptological detail is not the only pleasure to be found in this series. The books are written as first person narratives - they are supposedly Amelia’s journals. The books are very funny, and much of the humor derives from the differences between Amelia’s own perception of herself and her behavior. There is no question that she is spunky, feisty, and adventurous. She is also, in many ways, far more conventional than she would like to admit. As the series progresses, a large and varied cast of re-occurring characters develops. Much of my enjoyment of the series derives from seeing what old friends are doing in each new episode.
I do not plan to give a synopsis of each book here. Even a three-sentence summary of each book would given away plot developments over the course of the series, and I personally prefer to come upon these in situ . I found the series by accident, and the first book I read was fairly late in the series. So when I went back to the beginning and read the books in order, I already knew some plot developments which were going to occur. I feel that this diminished my pleasure to some degree, and I don’t want to do the same to you. However, if you are interested in reading a brief synopsis of each book, you can find one at Ms. Mertz’s website. I will, though, list the books here in the order they should be read:
- Crocodile on the Sandbank - 1884-85 season, published in 1975 - Apparently, in Egypt the “season” for archeologists begins in the fall and runs to the spring. Therefore they will speak of the 1888-89 season. During the summer, they retreat to cooler climes to write up their excavation reports.
- The Curse of the Pharaohs - 1892-93 season, published in 1981
- The Mummy Case 1894-95 season, published in 1985
- Lion in the Valley - 1895-96 season, published in 1986 - has one of the funniest scenes in all the Amelia books as, near the end, Amelia refuses to do something that the Master Criminal wants.
- The Deeds of the Disturber - Summer 1896, published in 1988 - The only book in the series which takes place entirely in England. There is still a tie-in with Egyptology, however.
- The Last Camel Died at Noon - 1897-98 season, published in 1991 - Ms. Mertz is a fan of H. Rider Haggard who wrote such adventure novels as She and King Solomon’s Mines. So she wrote this book as an homage to that genre. It is one of my favorites in the series.
- The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog - 1898-99 season, published in 1992
- The Hippopotamus Pool - 1899-1900 season, published in 1996
- Seeing a Large Cat - 1903-04 season, published in 1997
- The Ape Who Guards the Balance - 1906-07 season, published in 1998
- The Falcon at the Portal - 1911-12 season, published in 1999
- He Shall Thunder in the Sky - 1914-15 season, published in 2000
- Lord of the Silent - 1915-16 season, published in 2001
- The Golden One - 1916-17 season, published in 2002
- Children of the Storm - 1919-20 season. Published in 2003
- Guardian of the Horizon - 1907-08 season. Published in 2004. Ms. Mertz gave a lecture at the Library of Congress on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2003 in which she mentioned that she intended to take the Amelia Peabody series up through the discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Amelia is getting fairly old by this time, so Ms. Peters said that if she still wanted to write more books in the series, rather than going forward in time, she would go back and fill in some of the missing years. This is the first such book. So if you are a believer in reading books in the order they were written, this falls as number 16, but if you would prefer to read the books in the order of the year they occur, then it should be read between The Ape Who Guards the Balance and The Falcon at the Portal.
- Serpent on the Crown - 1922-23 season - published in 2005. This book takes us right up to the brink of Howard Carter’s discovery. There are hints throughout the book which to us, who know what is coming, are unmistakable. The next book, if there is one, must take us into the actual discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Quotes from Reviewers
Here are some quotes from reviewers taken from the backs of a few of the books:
Filled with romance and fraught with peril.
-New York Times Book Review
Tense, explosive, action-packed ...
It would have even Indiana Jones holding his breath.
Hair-raising. Mystery is her middle name.
Adventure and excitement ... A thrilling tale ...
with some of the most engaging characters in mystery fiction.
Between Amelia Peabody and Indiana Jones,
it’s Amelia - in wit and daring - by a landslide.
-New York Times Book Review