An Amelia Peabody mystery

The Ape Who Guards the Balance

The Falcon at the Portal

He Shall Thunder in the Sky

Summer of the Dragon

 
Lord of the Silent by Elizabeth Peters
(William Morrow, $25, NV) ISBN 0-380-97884-9
****
I was happy but surprised to see a new Amelia Peabody mystery. I thought that there was no more ground for this series to cover after the dramatic conclusion of He Shall Thunder in the Sky. An old nemesis lay dead, and young lovers Ramses and Nefret were finally united without any misunderstanding, while Amelia looked on fondly and took credit for it all.

Apparently, the Grande Dame of Historical Mystery feels she still has some stories to tell about everyone’s favorite busybody, Amelia Peabody, husband Radcliff Emerson (“the single most brilliant Egyptologist of his, or any other, time”), son Ramses and foster-daughter-turned-daughter-in-law, Nefret. Now that the Ramses/Nefret tension is resolved, the series returns to its roots for a good old fashioned archeological mystery.

The 1915 archeological season promises to be more peaceful than the previous one. Ramses has sworn off the dangerous World War I British espionage work that almost cost him his life. But when he is the target of a failed assassination attempt, Amelia and Emerson decide that he’s safer in archeologically-rich Luxor than tense Cairo. They send him and Nefret to Luxor on a combination honeymoon and sleuthing assignment. They are to investigate rumors of rampant tomb-robbing among Luxor’s treasured sites. It turns out, however, that Ramses and his bride are headed from the frying pan into the fire, as the tomb robbers appear to be working for the Master Criminal, the Peabody-Emersons’ most diabolical opponent. But the Master Criminal is dead, isn’t he? Is an imposter using his name and reputation as the best antiquities robber in the world to scare off potential competitors? Or is there another, more disturbing explanation?

Lord of the Silent starts slowly, and builds to an interesting climax, but it never achieves the pinnacle of excitement and suspense of the previous two Peabody novels. It reminds me of earlier books in the series, in which the danger was never taken too seriously, and the focus was more on the archeology than outside world events.

But patient readers will find many pleasures in this novel. First and foremost, of course, is the irrepressible, outspoken and fearless Amelia Peabody, whose droll narration sets the perfect tone. Of her first encounter with the reality of war, Amelia has this to say: This was my first air raid and I hated it - not only the feeling of helplessness, but the remoteness of the business. If someone is going to kill me, I want him to take a personal interest. Peabody has her usual spirited tiffs with her beloved Emerson, but there’s always a little time for some conjugal bliss when people aren’t trying to kill either or both of them.

The fledgling marriage between Ramses and Nefret is engaging as well. Just as Amelia and Emerson did years ago, the new couple has to negotiate a unique relationship in which love goes hand in hand with potential danger. It was a revelation to me to see the normally stoic Ramses opening up about his strong feelings towards his bride:

It had been hard enough for him to accept her as an equal companion and ally when she had been only (only!) the woman he loved. Now she was also his wife, caring for him as he had never dared hope she would, and he wanted to lock her up and keep her safe. She wouldn’t stand for that, nor should she…but the thought of harm coming to her made him break out in a cold sweat of terror. I wonder how the hell Father does it, he thought.

The secondary characters we’ve come to know add humor and depth to the story. Emerson’s British butler, Gargery, accompanies the family on their journey from London to Cairo, and his intense rivalry with Fatima, the Cairo housekeeper, is hysterically funny. Their eagerness to outdo each other results in total chaos for the household. A promising new character, Jumana, is a young, beautiful Egyptian girl whose passion for archeology refuses to be tempered by her family’s traditional gender roles. One more secondary character adds an intriguing set of dynamics to the Emerson-Peabody clan, but to say more would spoil the plot. I’ll just say that I hope we see more of this character in the future.

While I thought that He Shall Thunder in the Sky signaled the end of a great mystery series, Lord of the Silent seems to send a different message - that Elizabeth Peters is ready to keep writing about these two courageous archeologist/detective couples. And who knows - maybe someday there will be a third generation! While Lord of the Silent is less dramatic and showy than Thunder, as indicated by the different tones of their titles, it’s still great fun. If you haven’t acquainted yourself with Amelia Peabody and her brood, you have more than a dozen books to catch up on. If you are already a fan, you’ll rejoice with me that she’s back.

--Susan Scribner


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