Elizabeth Peters

Mrs. Amelia Peabody Emerson - Egyptologist and Amateur Sleuth, Egypt late 19th to early 20th century

"The Serpent on the Crown"

(reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer OCT 30, 2005)

"Catching my eye, she lifted her chin in a practiced gesture that smoothed out the slight sagging in her throat. “I apologize for the intrusion. The matter is of some urgency. My name is Magda Petherick. I am the widow of Pringle Petherick. My life is threatened and only you can save me."

This is, as Amelia Emerson points out, an introduction that captures one’s attention. Her husband, a collector of rarities, died the previous November, and she blames his death on a cursed Egyptian artifact he’d bought only weeks before. Now she is the owner of said artifact, and she desperately hopes the Emersons can remove the curse before she is next. Now, Magda is also a well known novelist of the more lurid, rather than literary, kind, and so the Emersons think she is just searching for fodder for her book, or in the very least over dramatizing the situation, until she is discovered to be missing.

Another thing that makes them wonder if this might not be a hoax to cash in on publicity and raise book sales is the statue itself. Small, gold, lovingly detailed, it looks like a piece from the time of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaton. This is no cheap trinket bought to support an outlandish story. Pringle’s children – a son who is not mentally stable and a daughter with a fiery, contemptuous temper, try and get the statue back, and they are only the first group of people with an unseemly interest in the piece. Another person interested in the piece is Sethos, Emerson’s illegitimate half brother who used to steal antiquities. He can change his appearance at will, a feat that would come in handy if the person he’s not chosen to disguise himself as wasn’t following him.

The story’s feel is in itself one of the main reasons people come back for more. The Victorian age comes through marvelously in Amelia’s narrative, she has the right amount of lady like primness that sometimes makes gentle fun of her own time, and a very strong sense of self. Seeing Egyptology at this time is quite interesting, especially as we see the attitude towards Howard Carter. Carter made what is considered one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time…King Tut’s tomb. There is a bit of negativity here, and I do not know if it is informed by more modern opinions about his methods, or if it is truly how the people would have felt at the time. I lean towards the later, Emerson, “the father of curses” is a fairly sharp person.

Another part of this book that makes it interesting is the Emerson clan itself. Made up of a diverse group of people, all of them smart, interesting and completely their own character, you find yourself actually caring about them. And if you’ve been with the series since it began seventeen books ago, then you doubtless have enjoyed watching Ramses, Nefret and the rest grow up and change.

Some of the best parts of the book include an exorcism conducted by Emerson, excavation of tombs, and some truly charming family moments.

The book is a sweet, exciting historical mystery that holds a few surprises even for them most steadfast of reader. If this is your first foray into the series, she slips enough information to make it interesting without bogging down the story, so you won’t be lost, though there is a great sense of entering in the middle of the story.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 67 reviews
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"Guardian of the Horizon"

(reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 16, 2004)

"As always, Peabody, you are the voice of conscience and common sense. I confess that I hadn't given that aspect of the case much thought."

I've been in a bit of reading/reviewing slump lately, mostly because I no longer have time to do a good job on any review. So, although I am reading, it is with a sense of frustration that I won't actually get to the "review" part of the process. To my absolute surprise, it is this series that has pulled me from this tortured place. I must tell you about my rediscovery.

Once upon a time, I was keeping up with the Amelia Peabody series -- that was back when we were living on our sailboat and I had much more time on my hands to read. In the past few years, I've tried to get back into the series for the sake of updating this author page but I found it too disconcerting to jump ahead to the latest book in the series -- Ramses, despite his trying childhood antics, grows into a respectable adult, even getting involved in the war effort. This is one series, I discovered, that I needed to read more or less in order.

As it turns out, Guardian of the Horizon is the perfect new book to jump back into the series with because it takes place earlier in the Emerson's lives, exactly ten years after The Last Camel Died at Noon, and the plot involves the same secret oasis and Holy Mountain. As this is about where I left off in the series it suited me just fine. The fictional "Editor" of the book introduces the events by informing us that "just when the Editor believed she was nearing the end of her arduous task of editing the Emerson papers, a new lot of them turned up. They include most of the journals from the so-called missing years ... between 1907 and 1914."

In this adventure, Ramses, Nefret, and David (the triumvirate, as Peabody calls them) are all around twenty years old and still under the Emerson's control, certainly an easier transition for me as the lapsed reader. For those unfamiliar with this series, Ramses is the Emerson's birth son, Nefret is their adopted daughter (the same one that they rescued from the hidden city on the Lost Oasis ten years earlier in the adventure described in The Last Camel Died at Noon). And David Todros is another foster son; he is the grandson of their beloved reis Abdullah, who died while saving Peabody's life. (Abdullah is very much still involved in the story when he appears prophet-like in dreams to Amelia and giving her cryptic hints.) All three "children" are quite talented, Ramses is a linguist, David, a former forger is a talented artist and Nefret is a doctor.

As the book opens, the Emerson's are in Kent trying to determine what they will do for the next "dig" season. Radcliffe Emerson, with appropriate sobriquet "The Father of Curses," has been banned from the Valley of the Kings at Luxor by M. Maspero. Tempers are running short and the three "children" have their own distractions. Ramses holds a secret love for Nefret that has become too overbearing for him to manage and thus he's hoping to approach his father about studying in Germany for the season, far away from Nefret. David is engaged to Lia, Emerson's niece, and is reluctant to go away for the season. But knowing Ramses dilemma, and more so, Emerson's will, David unselfishly does not request to stay behind. Then, while visiting a Pyramid erected for a friend, located in a nearby field, Nefret hears someone speak her native Meroitic language. Ramses investigates and is attacked by Merasin, a messenger from the Lost Oasis. Ramses brings him back to the house where Merasin reports that Tarek, the King whom the Emerson's had returned to his rightful throne ten years earlier, is in distress because his son and only heir is dying of a strange sickness. Amelia, also called Sitt Hakim which translates to "Lady Doctor," feels that she must help, not to mention that Nefret is a now a trained doctor herself. And obviously, Nefret feels a strong tie to return to her childhood home. Emerson and Peabody are no less displeased with an opportunity to return to the Holy Mountain, so there season plans are set.

There's only one glitch. To stay faithful to their promise of keeping the Holy Mountain secret, they can not tell anyone of their adventure including David. Ramses neatly resolves this situation by manipulating events and letting David stay behind, which David is only too happy to do and thus does not overly question Ramses excuses as to why he he is now willing to be near Nefret. Neither Ramses nor Peabody really trust Merasin, the messenger, which only makes returning to the Holy Mountain all the more imperative. Emerson and Nefret are more willing to take Merasin at face value, which creates some interesting mystery for the reader to sort out. Peabody and Ramses are also the more scheming of the foursome and it is their plan that is enacted to play out the charade in which they say they are going one place, while really headed for another. Naturally, all does not go perfectly to plan. But getting to the secret oasis is only half the adventure. Once they do arrive in the City of the Holy Mountain, things are definitely not what Merasin had portrayed. In the end every single character (including those in the extended family and some not) have a key role to play -- none more or less important than the other as they achieve their overall goal.

The interesting thing about this book, this series in general, is that while there is a mystery or two to solve, the book is really more of a family adventure novel, often comical, even outrageous, but always interesting. For this trip they go by steamer, train, paddle wheeler and camel caravan as they make their way to the remote desert of Western Sudan. Nothing is ever simple in the Emerson's life -- people are kidnapped, workers are murdered (sadly), their caravan is robbed; not to mention that they are always on the lookout for their arch-nemesis "Sethos," the master of disguises. Played out against this is the family's interaction -- "family" includes everyone that the Emerson's take under their wings, including their longtime faithful workers who are all members of Abdullah's family (whom they refer to as their Egyptian family), in this case most specifically their reis (foreman), the large Daoud and his assistant, the dandy Selim.

The series is narrated by Amelia Peabody (a.k.a. Mrs. Emerson, a.k.a Sitt Hakim). Amelia's narrative is always boastful of her family and friends, and of course of her own insight. She peppers her observations with humorous offhand comments; for example, when they are on the rundown paddle wheeler and she tells us,

"Additional entertainment was provided by bits of the boat falling off. Obviously this was not an unusual occurrence, for the crewmen remained unperturbed as they retrieved (most of) the bits and tied them back on. On one occasion we came to a dead halt in the middle of the river and it required some brisk steering by Farah to keep us going aground..."

Another convention also used, is in the form of "from Manuscript H" sections, which are third-person narration written by Ramses and thus usually from his perspective. This allows the reader to see activity outside of Amelia's experience as well as contrasting or confirming points of views. These are less humorous, but usually fill out the story for us, obviously allowing us to be in two places at once. Quite honestly, Manuscript H also relieves us of Amelia's constant braggadocio (Victorian as they are) -- something that in the earliest novels does get to be a bit much at times.

What I rediscovered is how totally imaginative this series is; I'd say almost as much so as any sci-fi / fantasy novel. In this one, the author creates a "lost" Holy Mountain in the middle of an oasis and it feels as much a real place as any. When the family ventures out, we can wholly picture where they are and what they are seeing. Texturing this experience is the mention throughout of the Muslim activities, such as Daoud punctually observing the fatah, and comments are made of Selim's many wives. There are also, of course, ancient Egyptian practices, which have their own fascination. I wouldn't call this strictly historical fiction -- there's a point where it is an imagining more than a incorporation of historical events. Though the inspiration for the series are actual persons, Amelia Edwards who really did sail up the Nile in a dahabiyeh and Lady Hilda Petrie who explored the pyramids with her husband, William Flinders Petrie. Crocodile on the Sandbank is probably the most straight forward historically in this sense and even then, the timeline is bent. Author Elizabeth Peters has a Ph.D in Egyptology, so she is obviously not totally inventing.

This is enjoyable fiction -- not too heavy, but not fluff either. Given its timeframe, this series naturally emulates a Victorian style novel, in much of its content and use of vocabulary. The novel is strong in characterization, so much so that plot pieces hang on how one would expect a character to behave. On the other hand, it is also fantastical and at times outright campy. There are things that you can expect in every Amelia Peabody novel such as her umbrella that doubles as a weapon, or that she or another family member will utter "another shirt ruined" at least once during the novel. The structure is also predictable, towards the end Amelia will have a revelation of sorts that she does not share with us, but it is the key clue to solving the mystery. A bit frustrating but since it only happens once and it is towards the end and all is revealed soon enough, it is not so discouraging to stop one from picking up another book in the series. In fact, I did just that. When I finished this one, I went to my bookshelves and found Children of the Storm.

  • Amazon readers rating: from58 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Guardian of the Horizon at MostlyFiction.com

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"Children of the Storm "

(reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 16, 2004)

"A thrill of horror ran through me. A dark shape against the silvery ripples, the boat went down, with it went Daoud, sitting bolt upright in the bow. The last I saw of him was his large, calm face, eyes wide open and mouth tightly closed, as the water rose up and over it. Only then did I remember that he could not swim a stroke."

The fictional Editor introduces this fifteenth "journal" to appear in print by giving us a broad overview of this "amazing family saga, encompassing three generations, a world war, and thirty-five years of turbulent history," which all begin in 1884 when Amelia Peabody made her first trip to Egypt. Now, her adult son, Ramses, is married to their foster daughter, Read excerptNefret and they have two children of their own, fraternal twins: son, Davy and daughter, Charla. Unlike Ramses at this age, these children do not talk -- well at least not in any language that the linguist Ramses can consistently discern.

The three generations of Emerson's reside in their Luxor compound, where they manage a dig site. They are anticipating the arrival of Emerson's brother, Walter with his family: his wife Evelyn, son-in-law, David Todros and daughter Lia, and their two children. The Emerson's also live near their extended Egyptian families, which include Daoud and Selim, their lifelong faithful workers. Ramses and Selim are as close as brothers -- in fact, Ramses and Nefret visit Selim and his wives weekly. Well you get the picture here -- this is a very family oriented adventure. And the family connections do not stop here.

As in most of these Amelia Peabody novels, the outright mystery is not a single event nor are any one of the "mysteries" exactly central or key to the overall story. Events are fast paced, disparate yet cumulative. To start with, three of the most valuable bracelets found in a royal cache and destined for the Turin Museum go suddenly missing along with Martinelli, the person in charge of restoration. It appears to be an outright theft and the Emerson's decide to get in touch with the person who recommended Martinelli for the job -- their former nemesis, but now reformed, Sethos (who also turns out to be a relation).

Meanwhile, Ramses is briefly abducted by a woman impersonating Hathor, which has Nefret a bit jealous and Ramses embarrassed. Throughout, his mother is compiling lists of possible women that Ramses could have "hmmm... intimate relations " and thus have motivation to do him harm.

Then Ramses happens upon a woman being harassed by a man -- and he valiantly protects her -- only to discover it is someone he already knows. She is Miryam, Sethos daughter. A bit of history is important here -- the Emerson's are responsible if not outright, at least by association, for killing Miryam's mother, Bertha. So there are some hard feelings here, but nevertheless she becomes part of the Emerson household. And Sethos returns to the Emerson household once again for an awkward reunion with his estranged daughter.

Plot-wise there are as many threads as there are family members and friends. Amelia helps keeps us straight with her famous lists, but outside of that, there is a lot of activity, which moves along at a good clip. The most puzzling thing for the Emerson's is that they are never quite sure if they are the target of events or even if the events are related or even part of the whole picture. With all the workday issues, the children underfoot, the whereabouts of this large extended family, servants and even cats, one hardly has time to worry about the actual plot. It's really not until the end when everything converges that it is quite clear where all this was leading, how everything is interconnected and a very tidy (if not spectacular) resolution is presented. The pleasure of this novel, this series, is spending time with Amelia Peabody and her family and friends, as well as experiencing life in this time period and location. It's really best to just let the "whodunit" part unfold rather than think you are going to be able to solve any of it yourself.

I picked up this novel right after competing Guardian of the Horizon. Basically, I was wanting to visit the Emerson's a bit longer and I was curious as to where the series had left off. I was immediately drawn in, but there was one incident in which I just had to stop and admire the author's originality. The Emerson's are making an evening crossing from Luxor back to their home on the West bank in Daoud's new boat and, as things happen with the Emerson's, the boat fills with water until it sinks. The quoted paragraph at the beginning of this review is from this incident. The image of the oversized Daoud just sitting straight up, eyes open and holding his breath as the boat sinks just got me -- but, then, once he is rescued, the family takes it upon themselves to give Daoud swimming lessons "to keep our spirits up" while waiting to be rescued. Mind you this all take place under moonlight. It is indefatigable scenes like this that endear me to this series.

Like the other novels, Children of the Storm has all of the predictable elements that have come to characterize this series. Somehow or other, when this author does this, it doesn't come off as indolence, instead it is more cultish -- we anticipate such events as much as Amelia's "cursed aphorisms." Though each novel is formulaic to an extent, by no means are they repetitious. These are historically based novels, which incorporate appropriate Egyptian and world events into the plot. Moreover, the family actually grows from novel to novel and not just in numbers. The characters mature appropriate to their characters. In fact, as I mentioned in the Guardian of the Horizon review, plot seems to often depend on our expectation of character behavior. I still feel that this series needs to be read somewhat in order, but I have to admit that I did enjoy skipping ahead this time and seeing the Emerson's as grandparents in this episode. Great credit is given to the author (or is it the fictional Editor!) for actually telling the story in such a way that anyone new to the series is not lost; appropriate events in the Emerson's lives are kindly shared so we don't feel left out if we are just now dropping in (or have been absent from the series for a bit).

If you haven't tried this series, and you think this setting seems appealing, then your really should do so. Surely, you can start with any book you come across first, just be prepared to back track. As for me, I'm now anxious to catch up on some of the ones in which Ramses does some wartime espionage, wondering how (not if) Amelia gets herself and Emerson involved in these plots.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 66 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Children of the Storm at MostlyFiction.com

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"The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog"

(reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 17, 1999)

Egyptologist Amelia Peabody along with her handsome husband, Radcliffe Emerson and her "catastrophically precocious" son, Ramses, investigate mysterious occurrences which take place in Egypt in the late 19th century. In this particular book, Emerson is kidnapped and Amelia must rescue him. 

This is the first book that I read of hers. I was attracted by the name, the book cover and then as I read the flap, the subject matter. These books are a bit corny - Amelia thinks her husband is very sexy and a story doesn't get very far without us being reminded (so much for Victorians). Her kid, Ramses, is a handful and the language is old-fashioned clean.  When is the last time you heard the term ablutions

Her books are a light read, funny, and worth the visit to Egypt (Elizabeth Peters has a Ph.D. in Egyptology). I promise you won't forget these characters. I've read about a half dozen of these books over the years and would recommend any of them.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 53 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Featuring Amelia Peabody:


Featuring Vicky Bliss:

Other books written by Elizabeth Peters:


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Barbara Mertz as Elizabeth PetersElizabeth Peters is a pen name for Barbara Mertz.  Barbara Mertz has a Ph.D in Egyptology at the University of Chicago.  She has written twenty-seven mysteries under the name of Elizabeth Peters and and another twenty-six suspense novels under the pseudonym of Barbara Michaels. Barbara Mertz a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters a.k.a Barbara Michaels won the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1998.

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