Rereadings: Revisiting Elizabeth Peters

March 5, 2010 at 12:00 am 20 comments


At some point in middle school I became irrevocably attached to the author of Elizabeth Peters. It started with Crocodile on the Sandbank, Peters’ fictional reimagining of Amelia Edwards’ travels in Egypt (now with more mystery, romance, and adventure!), but my love quickly spread to include pretty much all Peters’ other books and even some rather weepy romances written under her second pen name, Barbara Michaels. (Her real name is Barbara Mertz.)

When asked in a 7th grade art class to draw a portrait and write a short biography of someone you admired, I chose Elizabeth Peters. When Halloween came around, she inspired me to dress up as an Egyptologist, pith helmet and all. When writing my college admissions essays, a good number of them focused on my admiration for Peters and her fictional Amelia Peabody. And, for years, when asked to name my favorite book, Crocodile on the Sandbank absolutely topped the list. My affection for this author honestly knew no bounds. With her funny writing style, lovable characters, knowledge of history, and impressive PhD in Egyptology, Peters absolutely inspired me and showed me that there was something I could do professionally in life to combine my new-found love of Egypt (see The Egypt Game) and my fondness for writing. In short, I loved her just about as much as I loved her books.

Then I went to college and, for one reason or another, stopped reading Peters. In fact, I arrived here in February 2010 having not read a new Elizabeth Peters book since 2004. Enter The Laughter of Dead Kings, Peters’ newest release. It is the next story in her Vicky Bliss series, the last installment having been sometime in the early 1990s. What with my new-found love of libraries, I decided I might as well give Dead Kings a go. I figured I had nothing to lose and, in any event, I rather missed Peters.

Reading The Laughter of Dead Kings was like visiting a vivacious aunt you thought completely fabulous when you were eight years old only to discover that, wow, twenty years have passed for her, too, and she is now quite old and therefore unable to dance on the tables and tell crazy stories like she used to. It momentarily makes you doubt the fabulousness of the aunt in the first place (is your memory completely unreliable?!), but then there will be a glimmer of her old self to assuage your concerns.

Too much metaphor? Well them, let me say Dead Kings was disappointing on a number of levels, including:

1. Peters’ vain attempt to incorporate modern technology (such as the internet! And e-mail! And, gadzooks, cell phones!) into the story while still treating these new technologies much as you would the old ones (people are constantly excusing themselves to “check their messages” on their cell phones and never answering the darn things–which begs the question of their usefulness if you’re just going to treat them like a home phone anyway–or asking for messages at hotel concierge desks or using e-mail like a fax machine).

2. A plot seemingly cooked up for sheer name recognition purposes (King Tut’s mummy gets nicked and it is up to our heroes to find him) which fails to be interesting on almost any level. (The characters spend most of the book completely in the dark, wandering around various wadis, before our hero pulls the curtain back at the very end and reveals everything. This type of mystery is far too Agatha Christie for me to particularly enjoy it.)

3. Two particularly obnoxious devices which made me positively cringe and then weep that Peters had sunk so far: the first being inserting herself in the novel as a character who ends up romantically enticing one of the actual characters (Mary Sue much?) and the second being an added and rather forced connection between two of her series (in case you were wondering, the Vicky Bliss books and the Amelia Peabody series are now bound by the ties of blood rather than simply sharing an author).

This travesty unfolding before my eyes, I asked myself the terrible question of if I had been crazy to love her and her books so much in the first place. Was it all this bad and the other books were just too seeped in nostalgia for me to notice? Did middle-school-me have this poor taste?! A peep into Crocodile on the Sandbank quickly assuaged my worries. I breathed a massive sigh of relief. It was still excellent, Peters was still Peters, and, even if she has apparently lost her touch, by George I still loved her. I silently thanked the heavens and then, shaking my head at the absurdity I was willingly subjecting myself to in the name of literary affection, actually finished The Laughter of Dead Kings. Re-visitation complete.

–Corey

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Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Rereadings. Tags: , , , , .

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20 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  March 5, 2010 at 9:28 am

    That’s so sad about Elizabeth Peters! I still flip through Crocodile from time to time, and my copy of He Shall Thunder in the Sky still has all of my costuming notes in it :)

    I like how you have specifically broken down exactly what went wrong in specific terms. I cannot believe she made herself a Mary Sue! Tying all of her characters together by blood has a certain appeal, I suppose — now she can has a distinct “Elizabeth Peters-verse” — but it is a bit self-indulgent. How is Vicky related to the Emerson-Peabody clan?

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  March 5, 2010 at 9:43 am

      Yeah, no joke. At least we’ll always have Crocodile! I mentioned this about Ellis Peters, too, but at a certain point it’s about knowing when to stop as an author. Does any series really need 18 installments? I think not. Knowing when you’re spent is part of being a good author, although I don’t like to penalize my favorites for trucking on (maybe I should now!).

      And those were only a few of the most egregious things that went wrong. It was just such a disappointment. At least it was a quick read!

      In terms of the tie between the Emerson-Peabody clan, spoiler alert! It’s John, actually, not Vicky who is related to the Emerson-Peabodys. He is a descendant of Ramses and Nefret’s daughter’s line, I believe. It’s just so blatantly inserted for absolutely no good reason aside from loyal reader-rewarding that it felt idiotic. The dialogue literally goes something like, “Why, John, why didn’t you ever tell me you were related to the famous Emerson-Peabodys of Egyptological fame?” “Everyone is; they had so many grandchildren!” “What now?” “Let me explain my family tree!” “How fascinating, John!” *cringe*

      Reply
      • 3. KT  |  March 5, 2010 at 2:10 pm

        Oooooh, I see! I wondered, as isn’t John some sort of master criminal? I wondered if he had a Sethos connection.

        Reply
      • 4. Corey  |  March 5, 2010 at 2:17 pm

        That is exactly where I thought the whole Vicky/Amelia connection was going! I always assumed there was a John/Sethos connection since they’re both all thin and blond and slightly nefarious. (And Peters has been hinting about a familial tie between the two series for years.) I was kind of disappointed she foisted John off onto a random Emerson-Peabody grandchild. (If she had to make the connection at all, she could have done it much better, methinks.)

        Reply
      • 5. KT  |  May 30, 2010 at 10:28 am

        Just found this thread again — Sethos is blond? Wow.

        Reply
      • 6. Corey  |  June 1, 2010 at 6:16 am

        Yeah, quelle bummer, right?

        Reply
  • 7. Marg  |  March 5, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Thanks so much for stopping by! Yes! So glad I was not the only one who had these same issues. I am still happy to be reading my way through the Amelia books, but I am counting this one as an aberration. Probably won’t stop me from being excited when a new book comes out by her, but I will know to temper my excitement a bit.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    Reply
    • 8. Corey  |  March 5, 2010 at 2:20 pm

      Hi Marg! Thanks for coming over here! Indeed, it’s great to commiserate about these things.

      I’m a long, unintentional hiatus from the Amelia books. How are the news ones compared to the older ones? Do you have a favorite? I pretty much stopped reading after Children of the Storm, although He Shall Thunder in the Sky is the last one I have any strong memories of (and I adored it).

      Reply
      • 9. Marg  |  March 5, 2010 at 2:41 pm

        I loved the four book series within a series that ended with He Shall Thunder in the Sky – Ramses is probably one of my favourite literary men! Nefret is a really lucky girl, and the storyline with them getting together was just soo good!

        Reply
      • 10. Corey  |  March 5, 2010 at 3:00 pm

        I once again totally agree! The four-book arch was completely brilliant. It was agony at times, but I love how Elizabeth Peters brought it to the perfect conclusion. *happy sigh*

        Reply
  • 11. Eva  |  March 6, 2010 at 2:12 am

    I hate it when that happens. :( I read Crocodile on the Sandbank a couple of years ago, with super-high hopes since I love historical mysteries, strong women leads, and Egyptology…but it just didn’t do it for me. (No offense.) I think I’m too picky about mysteries, but at least I can always reread my old favourites!

    Reply
    • 12. Corey  |  March 6, 2010 at 8:41 am

      Aw, bummer. I’ve just always adored Crocodile, but I could see how it’s not for everyone. What mysteries rank up there for you?

      Reply
      • 13. Eva  |  March 7, 2010 at 6:46 pm

        My favourite contemporary series is Laurie King’s Mary Russell one. My favourite Golden Age is Dorothy Sayers w/ Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey. Others I love include Kate Ross, Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Donna Leon…and I’m currently trying out some more internationally-set mysteries in hopes of finding a couple other favourites. :)

        Maybe I just read Crocodile at a bad time…perhaps I’ll give the second a try some day!

        Reply
      • 14. Corey  |  March 8, 2010 at 6:03 am

        Hmm, I haven’t heard of most of those so I’ll have to raid my local library and try them out. Thanks for the recommendations!

        Reply
  • 15. silverseason  |  March 6, 2010 at 2:59 am

    I was in my middle years (not middle years) when I met Amelia Peabody. I loved Amelia and thoroughly enjoyed the Egyptology. After following the series for a while, I found that Peters was running out of ideas and repeating cliches about her characters. My old affection has faded a bit, but I have warm memories of our early days together.

    Reply
    • 16. Corey  |  March 6, 2010 at 8:42 am

      Yeah, I had the same kind of experience. As I mentioned, I basically stopped after He Shall Thunder in the Sky because they were getting repetitive. On the bright side, I think most of the Amelia books are written in the same springy style, so you can at least enjoy the prose even if the plots get a bit repetitive.

      Reply
  • […] fiction about Brits in Egypt, in my opinion you can’t do better than the early books in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series. And then you’ll get those contrived romantic intrigues back, […]

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  • […] I needed were three keywords in combination—Vintage Elizabeth Peters! Fairies! A mystery!—and I had to read this book. The Love Talker, a stand-alone Peters […]

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  • […] over mental exercise. Some of my favorite books are essentially comeuppance stories (Crocodile on the Sandbank springs to mind). But how often do you think about a comeuppance story after you’ve finished […]

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  • […] Peters’ The Laughter of Dead Kings (and dare I add all books in her much-beloved Amelia Peabody series after He Shall Thunder in the […]

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