Stories I Love: Amelia Peabody | Judy K. Walker

Stories I Love: Another Year, Another Dead Body with the Inimitable Amelia Peabody

I had intended to do something fun this week to celebrate the release of the Heir audiobook—woo hoo! Except Heir isn’t actually showing up on most stores yet, so less woo and more boo. 😢 Retailers are being slow as pahoehoe. (A 5.5 Kilauea-adjacent earthquake woke us a few nights ago, so lava flows are on my mind.)

That leaves me scrambling at the last minute for a blog post, which means it’s time for a Story I Love I could write in my (non-earthquake-interrupted) sleep.

Giza valley with Great pyramids with blue cloudy sky

“Another dead body. Every year it is the same. Every year, another dead body…”

– Abdullah, Lion in the Valley, Elizabeth Peters

I’ve always been a reader, but, as I’ve shared previously, there was a period of time in my early twenties when law school broke me (Happy PI Day). It took a used copy of John D. MacDonald’s philosopher/“salvage consultant” Travis McGee to bring me back into the fiction fold. Unfortunately, not even John D. could bring me back to full reading health, that state of devouring everything in sight. Blocks remained about what I would and wouldn’t read. I was very resistant to anything that might be considered fluff. Shocking, I know!

Around this time, I found myself in an airport with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. I can’t remember if we were coming or going, but Los Angeles would be/had been our destination. In other words, we were facing long flights, and I had nothing to read. Until—there it was. A fat, yellow paperback with eye-catching fonts and a dash of Egyptology.

Hmm… I like Egyptology.

Inside the front cover, a map of 1911 Cairo tickles the child in me, exciting a kind of anticipation that’s lain dormant for years.

But will it be too fluffy?

I flip to read inside the back cover. Wow, this Elizabeth Peters person has a doctorate in Egyptology, so she must know her stuff.

My fate is sealed as I turn the book over to find the NY Times Book Review saying, “between Amelia Peabody and Indiana Jones, it’s Amelia—in wit and daring—by a landslide.” And there’s that childhood appeal again, evoking memories of watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time (and the following twenty-five), thinking it was the best movie ever. Maybe even—gasp!—better than Star Wars.

My first Elizabeth Peters paperback, Falcon at the Portal

I almost blush taking The Falcon at the Portal to the checkout counter. Please don’t look—I’m reading fluff.

That was my introduction to the inimitable Amelia Peabody, spinster turned Egyptologist turned amateur detective. I shoved my nose in deep, barely came up for air, and never looked back, reading all of the Amelia Peabody books, as well as Elizabeth Peters’ Vicki Bliss  series and Jacqueline Kirby series, an occasional gothic thriller written as Barbara Michaels, and the two nonfiction books of Egyptology under her “real name” of Barbara Mertz.

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Barbara Mertz, but my heart belongs to Amelia Peabody. That’s where the real alchemy happens. The series is a perfect blend of genres, a historical mystery with adventure and humor that’s not quite cozy. As the series progresses it becomes darker in concert with the world the characters inhabit, becoming enmeshed in World War I.

The books have a wry sense of humor, parodying the historical adventure stories Barbara Mertz obviously loved. Many Peabody readers rejoiced and/or fumed over The Mummy (1999), it being as close in tone as we would ever get to the series on the big screen. (I’m in the rejoice camp—loved that movie, though the later installments were a mixed bag, and it’s hard to find the first one on DVD.)

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth PetersThe first Amelia Peabody book, Crocodile on the Sandbank, written in 1975, was intended as a standalone. It’s 1884, and unorthodox English spinster Amelia Peabody sets out to travel the world, having inherited a large sum of money upon the death of her father. As she says,

“I disapprove of matrimony as a matter of principle…. Why should any independent, intelligent female choose to subject herself to the whims and tyrannies of a husband? I assure you, I have yet to meet a man as sensible as myself!”

Amelia Peabody has a high opinion of her gender (especially for the times) and of herself:

“I have been accused of being somewhat abrupt in my actions and decisions, but I never act without thought; it is simply that I think more quickly and more intelligently than most people.”

Needless to say, adventures ensue for the Sitt Hakim (“Lady Doctor,” as the Egyptians eventually call her), perhaps even some of the romantic variety.

Subsequent books roughly follow the framework suggested above by the reis (foreman of excavations) Abdullah: another year, another dead body. Curses, tombs, and murders, with a soupçon of dry wit—no wonder these books are my go-to comfort reading. I wanted to share more quotes, to give you a flavor for the series, and found hundreds of them on Goodreads! Here are a few that caught my eye before I mustered the discipline to click away.

Camels and pyramids on a hot sunny evening“The trouble with unknown enemies is that they are so difficult to identify.” The Hippopotamus Pool

“I have learned that particularly clever ideas do not always stand up under close scrutiny.” Also The Hippopotamus Pool

“I would not be at all surprised to find that it was for gold that Cain committed the first murder. (It happened a very long time ago, and Holy Writ, though no doubt divinely inspired, is a trifle careless about details. God is not a historian).” The Last Camel Died at Noon

Finally, here’s one that particularly resonates for this writer of fiction (and lover of meandering conversations under the influence of extreme caffeine).

“Speculation,’ I retorted, ‘is never a waste of time. It clears away the deadwood in the thickets of deduction.” He Shall Thunder in the Sky

I should add the only thing better than an Amelia Peabody paperback is an Amelia Peabody audiobook. I never really got audiobooks until we stopped at a Barnes & Noble one evening on the front end of a long road trip. We left with an amazing Barbara Rosenblatt performance of an Amelia Peabody mystery that did far more to keep us awake than the mediocre caffeine. (For the record, while we were browsing inside, our terrier Asta devoured the focaccia we’d picked up next door for a road snack; there’s a reason Asta and Bishop were our only terriers.)

Unfortunately Ms. Mertz passed away in 2010, but she was a prolific writer if you care to dive deep into all of her pen names. If not, rest assured that she left behind true treasure as Elizabeth Peters. Now all I want to do is reread Amelia Peabody books. It is Friday, after all…




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