Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

The Mummy Case (Amelia Peabody 3)
by Elizabeth Peters
Blackstone Audio, 2009
11 discs, unabridged

I was thinking that perhaps I view the Amelia Peabody mysteries as a "guilty pleasure" the other night, and then I realized that I don't actually feel terribly guilty about enjoying them so much. They are tremendously campy, silly, and grossly far-fetched, but what's wrong about enjoying them for that? Coming from someone whose reading motto resembles something like "never apologise" it seems odd that I should view reading anything as a guilty pleasure.

I get such a kick out of these books, and just that makes them worth reading. They are mysteries, sure, but it's not the mystery that's the draw. There's very little serious suspense, other than wondering exactly how the Emersons going to pull things off this time, and maybe sometimes a bit of wondering over the details of the cases. For whatever reason, what I would regard as unforgivable forebludgeoning in most other books gets a free pass here.

No, not for "whatever reason," actually. It's the characters, Amelia specifically, but the others as well. Amelia is the first-person narrator: the books are her journals. And Amelia is blessed with copious amounts of self-confidence and a finely honed sense of Victorian melodrama, leading to lots of "It did not occur to me to be concerned... at the time..." sorts of statements. Forebludgeoning, yes, but perfectly in character. And since I don't read (er, listen to) these books for the plots I don't particularly care about being heavily spoiled in advance.

Amelia Peabody is one of the great characters I have encountered, I think. She is somehow endearing in her brash sense of oblivious superiority (which is always played for laughs at Amelia's expense, except for one moment in this book, where Amelia's confidence in herself and her countryfolk is thrown back at her, and well-deserved, too) and her sharp intelligence. She would probably be less bearable except that she is often right. And not only that, she's willing, if extremely reluctant, to admit when she's wrong, too. Or at least lead the reader of her journals to draw that conclusion on their own, even if she won't explicitly say it. She is a well-defined, larger-than-life woman who both leaps off the page and feels real enough that I am willing to suspend any disbelief in following her around.

Aside from the character, I love the setting. Victorian-era Egypt and archaeology are fascinating places to visit (I wouldn't have wanted to live there.) Peters always brings it alive. She knew her archaeology and her history, and she uses Amelia's enthusiasm and passion to share some of that with us. I will admit that if anyone gave me a test on any facts I should have picked up from this book I wouldn't fare so well. It turns out I'm not reading to learn about Ancient Egypt either, though I find it fascinating at the time.

I should warn: anyone who has not read the first two books will necessarily encounter spoilers for those first two in the following paragraphs.

In this book, Amelia and Radcliffe (hereafter referred to as "Emerson" since I can't think of him any differently) are heading back to Egypt, and have decided to take their terrifyingly precocious son Ramses with them. Emerson is determined that they shall dig at the pyramids at Dahshoor, but instead they are relegated to the "pyramids" at Mazghunah, a field of rubble that may in fact once have been pyramids, but now bears little resemblance to the structures Amelia is so taken with. Despite her disappointment, Amelia at least has a mystery to keep her occupied: a suspected ring of antiquities thieves are flooding the market with some very choice items that are thus lost to science forever, and she suspects the murder of an acquaintance - a not-quite-honest antiquities dealer in Cairo - is connected.

The fact that even though things get just completely, utterly ridiculous at the end I still ate this up, and happily, suggests the power that Amelia Peabody (and Elizabeth Peters) has over me. I believe I even shouted "Are you serious?!" at the CD player in the car at one point because Amelia, despite not being stupid, does some incredibly rash things and I could see, clear as day, that things were not going to go well. The fact that she's cheerfully upfront about this (dissecting the situation postmortem, as she is) goes some way toward mitigating my mildly appalled astonishment. The other thing is that Amelia doing incredibly rash things near the close of a book (and upfront too, really, if we're counting) is hardly out of character.

I suppose one could start at this book quite comfortably in the series. I do think that the relationship between Emerson and Amelia, and the relationship they have with their son, is portrayed strongly enough in this third book that one wouldn't need to have a background in it, though I do think that Crocodile on the Sandbank is the stronger of the three books and would certainly recommend starting there instead. This, however, is a perfectly adequate outing in this series, neither surprising nor disappointing, and as entertaining as I expected and hoped.

Earlier books in the Amelia Peabody series:
1. Crocodile on the Sandbank
2. Curse of the Pharaohs

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