Elizabeth Peters was a pen name for Barbara Mertz. Mertz was a prolific author who wrote under three different names because her agent insisted that her reading public would be confused by her other style and genre.
As Elizabeth Peters she created a wonderful series of 19 novels around the adventures of fictional archaeologist Amelia Emerson nee Peabody and her unique family. Set in late Victorian times her heroine is cut from the same cloth as Emily Hobhouse (welfare campaigner for Boer women), Florence Nightingale and Emily Pankhurst – intrepid, intractable, intelligent and inquisitive.
The tales begin immediately following the death of her father when, provided with a reasonable inheritance Miss Peabody sets forth on a trip through Europe to Egypt. Here she develops two passions; one for the history and archaeology of the ancient Pharaohs and the other for the obstreperous, bull headed, brilliant and irresistible Professor Radcliffe Emerson. Together they tunnel their way through one chaotic situation after another. Finding adventure isn’t the only thing that happens; ‘every year another dead body’ becomes the standing joke as each season’s excavations in Egypt inevitably dig up more than pottery shards and mummies.
The books span a period of forty years and encompass many of the political and social changes of the time. Mertz was fascinated with Egyptology and studied it at University and beyond and her depth of knowledge and the love she had for the subject is clearly reflected in the characters. The books are much more than just adventure novels with a good dose of humour thrown in; they are very well crafted and skilfully written. Parasols and Egyptian cats, spies, unrequited love, treasures, politics, fashion and Sherlock Holmes are all part of the amazing tapestry into which the stories are woven . With the stories told mainly from Amelia’s perspective Peters manages to make her annoying, self-righteous, funny, lovable and self-deprecating all at once. When Peters introduces us to the child prodigy that is Ramses, only child of Emerson and Peabody, I thought at first she had gone too far. The boy seemed to be the embodiment of the worst of both parents and at one point I couldn’t decide who I thought was the more obnoxious – Peabody or her young son! And yet how I laughed, in fact I nearly cried. The character developed and as Ramses grew and matured my heart swelled with motherly pride.
Many reviewers portray Peabody as a female Indiana Jones but I think that rather misses the mark. Instead of disregarding the social mores and limitations imposed upon women in that era she rises above them with aplomb. She uses her wits, her charm and her deep understanding of social behaviours to achieve her ends. She is an astute observer of others but is as often wrong in the conclusions she draws as she is right! Dignified and determined she maintains both her standards and her expectations of others, regardless of whatever adventure she finds herself in. I often think that Dame Maggie Smith and Amelia Peabody would have had a lot in common.
My husband recently had an operation and I introduced him to these while he was recuperating, he loves them. I picked up one just to refresh my memory and ended up reading my way through the whole series again in a month, resulting in serious book hangovers at work….If you long for something refreshing, engrossing, light hearted and yet well crafted pick up the first one in the series “Crocodile On The Sandbank” – just don’t blame me when you end up reading all 19 in a row. And if, when you have finished them, you can distill the qualities that make me so addicted to them, you’ll be as good at ratiocination as Amelia!