Monday, October 24, 2016

Semi-Modern Mysteries with Connections to the Ancient World

Strong heroines, complex mysteries, living history, a touch of romance, and connections to the ancient world which are critical to the plot… what could be better?

About a year and a half ago, I started reading Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mystery series and was completely blown away.  Using a writing style that parodied H. Rider Haggard and other adventurefiction of the eighteen hundreds, Peters penned a series that centers on the strong-minded, recklessly brave Amelia Peabody.  In Crocodile on the Sandbank, set in 1884, Amelia travels to Egypt after inheriting a small fortune.  She quickly acquires a beautiful companion with a mysterious past, and just as quickly adds herself to the excavation team of the ever-irascible archaeologist Radcliffe Emerson.  When a mysterious man dressed as an ancient mummy scares away the excavation workers, and even attempts to kill the excavation team, it is Amelia to the rescue!
Over the course of the series, Amelia and her new husband excavate many different parts of Egypt, become intimately familiar with the (real) Egyptian archaeologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, visit Palestine and Kush, grow their family, battle antiquity thieves and foreign spies, and solve numerous mysteries.
Elizabeth Peters was herself an Egyptologist, and her books are full of details of real archaeological discoveries, ancient tales and poems, and an accurate depiction of the turn-of-the-century understanding of ancient Egyptian history.,204,203,200_.jpg
My favorite things about this series:  I love Amelia’s voice; I love learning about the history of Egyptian archaeology; and I love Amelia’s relationship with her husband.  This may be one of the best-written marriages I’ve ever encountered.
Series rating:  I would give most of the books in this series to a teenager, but not quite all.  The Last Camel Died at Noon contains some (accurate) re-enactments of ancient Egyptian rituals which I could have done without.  Some later books have a few scenes between Amelia’s son and his love interest which might not be suitable for teens.

Quick quote: (Amelia and her new companion Evelyn visit the Museum of Antiquities in Boulaq, where they meet the Emerson brothers for the first time.)
            We had penetrated into a back room filled with objects that seemed to be leftovers from the more impressive exhibits in the front halls of the museum—vases, bead necklaces, little carved ushebti figures, flung helter-skelter onto shelves and into cases.  There were several other people in the room.  I paid them little heed; in mountain indignation, I went on, “They might at least dust!  Look at this!”
            And, picking up a blue-green statuette from a shelf, I rubbed it with my handkerchief and showed Evelyn the dirty smudge that resulted.
            A howl—a veritable animal howl—shook the quiet of the room.  Beofre I could collect myself to search for its source, a whirlwind descended upon me.  A sniewy, sun-bronzed hand snatched the statuette from me.  A voice boomed in my ear.
            “Madam!  Do me the favor of leaving those priceless relics alone!  It is bad enough to see that incompetent ass, Maspero, jumble them about; will you complete his idiocy by destroying the fragments he has left?”
            Evelyn had retreated.  I stood alone.  Gathering my dignity, I turned to face my attacker. …
            “Sir,” I said, looking him up and down.  “I do not know you—“
            “But I know you, madam!  I have met your kind too often—the rampageous British female at her clumsiest and most arrogant. … No spot on earth is safe from you!”
            He had to pause for breath at this point, which gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for.
            “And you, sir, are te lordly British male at his loudest and most bad-mannered.  If the English gentlewoman is covering the earth, it is in hope of counteracting some of the mischief her lord and master has perpetrated. …”
            My adversary was maddened, as I had hoped he would be.  Little flecks of foam appeared on the blackness of his beard.  His subsequent comments were incomprehensible, but several fragile objects vibrated dangerously on the shelves.

Much more recently, on the recommendation of a friend, I started reading Laurie R. King’s Russell and Holmes mystery series.  The series begins shortly after World War One, and is still growing.  In The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the highly-observant and scholarly teenager Mary Russell meets the semi-retired detective Sherlock Holmes.  A Jewess, Russell studies Hebrew Bible and Rabbinics at Oxford when she isn’t solving cases with the middle-aged Holmes.  In only the first book of the series, Russell and Holmes catch spies, thieves, kidnappers, and a master criminal with a long-time grudge against Holmes.
In later books in the series, Russell and Holmes travel to Palestine, solve a murder sparked by a New-Testament era manuscript, return to Baskerville Hall, and more.

My favorite things about this series: the Hebrew-related jokes, the tone-perfect voices of characters from the Conan Doyle stories, and Mary Russell’s intelligent stubbornness.
Series rating: Once again, most of the books in this series are suitable for a teenager, but not all.  A Monstrous Regiment of Women has some very odd undercurrents, and involves some unusual biblical exegesis.  I’ve only read the first five books in the series, so I can’t say anything about the later stories.

Amelia Peabody Mysteries (in internal chronological order)
Crocodile on the Sandbank
The Curse of the Pharoahs
The Mummy Case
Lion in the Valley
Deeds of the Disturber
The Last Camel Died at Noon
The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog
The Hippopotamus Pool
Seeing a Large Cat
The Ape Who Guards the Balance
Guardian of the Horizon
A River in the Sky
The Falcon at the Portal
The Painted Queen (to be published)
He Shall Thunder in the Sky
Lord of the Silent
The Golden One
Children of the Storm
The Serpent on the Crown
Tomb of the Golden Bird

Russell and Holmes Mysteries through 2016 (in internal chronological order)
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
Beekeeping for Beginners (novella, published with Garment of Shadows)
O Jerusalem
A Monstrous Regiment of Women
A Letter of Mary
The Moor
Justice Hall
The Game
Dreaming Spies
Locked Rooms
The Language of Bees
The God of the Hive
Pirate King
Garment of Shadows