by Suzanne Snyder
“If Indiana Jones were female, a wife and a mother who lived in Victorian times, he would be Amelia Peabody Emerson,” said Publishers Weekly of the intrepid heroine of the now fifteen-book Amelia Peabody Mystery series.
. . . Elizabeth Peters, herself an accomplished Egyptologist with a Ph.D. in the subject from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Under her real name, Dr. Barbara Mertz, she has written two scholarly books on Egypt and Egyptology: Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt and Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. As Elizabeth Peters (cobbling together the names of her two children) she conveys her immense knowledge of the subject to us in a witty, easy-to-understand style, mostly through Amelia’s succession of journals—though sometimes through the journals and letters of the other main characters, who I will introduce presently. Peters educates us bit by bit about Egyptology and nineteenth-century archeological practices, as Amelia herself learns about it. Amelia, when we first meet her, knows little about hands-on archeology, although she is extremely learned for a woman of her time—mostly at the hand of her father, a scholar and antiquarian. As Amelia is drawn deeper and deeper into the culture and practices of the Victorian Egyptologists—at first poking her nose (and the rest of her, not always with grace and ease, but always with intense curiosity) into every Egyptian pyramid she can find, then into wells, trenches, and rubble piles—we learn with her about Victorian excavating methods, as well as the theories and prevailing thoughts propounded by European archeologists of the time.
In the pages of the Amelia Peabody Mysteries, we also meet real historical persons, such as Gaston Maspero, Sir Evelyn Baring, Howard Carter, and Emil Brugsch, voices of the archaeological community in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. These characters interact with the Emersons, bringing to light some of the issues with which European archeologists were wrestling in those days: how to, for instance, accurately record data and manage digs so that the findings were not marred by sloppy methods of excavation and lack of preservation; also how to keep artifacts from being stolen by thieves who then sold them on the black market to wealthy collectors. One of the main themes that pervades the series is the transition between two ideologies: the Colonial plundering of the land—bringing, as it were, the spoils of conquest to museums in London or other European capitals—and developing museums in Egypt to keep treasures in the land from which it came.
Peters sets Amelia’s exploits in real locations. Part of the fun for those who have visited Egypt and have seen some of the archeological sites is reading about and recognizing places they have seen—albeit in the context of a juicy murder or frightening circumstance.
Crocodile on the Sandbank was first published in 1975. It opens in Rome of 1885, where the 32-year-old spinster heiress, Amelia Peabody, “rescues” a fellow Englishwoman, Evelyn Barton-Forbes who has made some regrettable mistakes that put her at odds with proper British society. Never one to let society dictate her decisions, Amelia takes Evelyn as a companion on her travels to Egypt, a place she has always wanted to explore. There, they meet the Emerson brothers, Walter and the tempestuous but very compelling Radcliffe, who are excavating in the region. Walter and Evelyn take an immediate shine to each other in the conventional way. Amelia and Radcliffe (she calls him Emerson and he calls her Peabody) start off their acquaintanceship like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing (and if you are not familiar with the play, you might guess from the context that I mean that they mixed about as well as oil and water). Throw in some spectral appearances and a mummy (how could there NOT be a mummy involved?)—and the foursome tumble headlong into their first mystery. I’ll not tell you how it was resolved, but I will tell you what you may well have guessed: By the end of the story, John and Evelyn have headed back to England where they immediately set about having a family. Emerson and Peabody have fallen hopelessly in love and lust with each other—an attraction and commitment that carries through the other 14 books in the series, up through the most recent one, Children of the Storm, which takes place against the backdrop of World War I.
Other prominent characters in the Amelia Peabody Mystery series include Walter Peabody Emerson, better known as “Rameses,” Amelia and Emerson’s amazingly precocious son who first makes an appearance as a toddler in Curse of the Pharoahs and then becomes a mainstay of the series, beginning with The Mummy Case (1985). We watch Rameses grow up to be a chip off the old Emerson block, a peerless scholar/archeologist who, with his flawless command of the Arabic language, dark hair, and tanned skin, can seamlessly disappear into the native population at will. His relationship with young Nefret, a beautiful girl that the Emersons rescue and raise as their daughter and who Rameses eventually comes to love as more than a sister, is an on-going feature of many of the later books in the series.
There is also the beloved Abdullah, the overseer of the native workers and faithful retainer, who is a source of wisdom and comfort to Amelia, and Abdullah’s son David, the best friend and to many a near lookalike of Rameses. Last, but not least, is the Master Criminal, who we later come to know as Sethos. He gives Emerson some sexual competition, coming out of the darkness to tempt Amelia (does she or doesn’t she?) on a number of occasions. Why does he seem so familiar?
Amelia is called “Sitt Hakim,” or “lady doctor,” by the Arabs, due to the large assortment of medicines and surgical equipment she carries around with her. Without formal teaching but with a lot of book knowledge and common sense, compounded by her belief in her own competence, Amelia routinely stitches up husband and son, who between them share a bad habit of ruining their shirts with knife cuts and bullet holes; she uses her first aid skills to patch up the native workers as well. Amelia also cares for animals, particularly donkeys—which she refuses to ride unless she is allowed to check under their saddle blankets for saddle sores and then to treat the sores if she finds them. In her treatment of humans and animals, Amelia makes an impression on Nefret, who eventually graduates from a womens’ medical school in London and returns to Egypt to treat the native women there.
Amelia dresses practically in loose clothing, consisting of broad-brimmed hat, blouse, knee-length trousers and tool belt, while excavating—often creating a stir among the proper Victorian tourist women who, in their whalebone corsets and bustles, come to watch the Emersons excavate. She also carries her famous parasol, a weapon as well as a sun shield, which she doesn’t hesitate to use on unwitting enemies. Despite her unconventionality, however, Amelia insists on certain British standards: teatime in the afternoon, for instance, and flowers in her sandy garden. Brought up as an Anglican, Peabody also insists on maintaining certain religious observances in her household as well—though she cannot always count on the rebellious Emerson to comply.
Emerson is called almost reverently by the natives “ the Father of Curses,” a moniker that accurately describes his fiery temperment. Completely convinced of his own superiority as an archeologist and scholar (and the inferiority of most of his peers), Emerson rants and raves through the 15-book (thus far) series, tamed only by his love for Peabody. She—and adopted daughter Nefret, who has wrapped him around her little finger—are nearly the only people that can influence him. Like father, like son, Ramses is called “the Father of Demons,” by virtue of his almost unworldly intelligence evidenced at a young age.
Amelia gets her name from Amelia B. Edwards, who wrote a Victorian travel book, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. Amelia Peabody’s nickname, “Sitt Hakim,” or “Lady Doctor,” was the name the Egyptians gave Amelia Edwards’ own traveling companion on their Nile journeys. The Nile sail/houseboat (or dahabiyeh) that both the fictional and real Amelia traveled upon was called the Philae.
Amelia Peabody’s character, however, was based more closely on that of Lady Hilda Petrie, the wife of British Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie. According to the Web article “Digging up Clues with Amelia Peabody (Emerson),” by “L.G.,” Hilda Petrie “took off her skirt before being lowered into the interior of a pyramid; further items of clothing were removed as she and her husband explored the inner chambers.”
The Emerson brothers’ excavations at Amarna, Elizabeth Peters tells us in an Authors’ Note at the beginning of Crocodile on the Sandbank, were based on those of Hilda Petrie’s husband, Sir William Flinders Petrie. In Elizabeth Peters’ words, “I have taken the liberty of attributing some of his discoveries—and his ‘advanced’ ideas about methodology—to my fictitious archaeologists. The painted pavement found by Petrie was given the treatment I have described by Petrie himself.” (The treatment was covering the pavement with a mixture of tapioca and water, thus preserving the painted plaster.) Emerson is said to physically resemble Petrie in his younger years, being “darkly handsome, black-haired and bearded . . . he shares, as well, the famous Egyptologist’s meticulousness, disregard for comfort, tireless energy, cast-iron stomach and competitive nature, plus his less attractive characteristics—quick temper, stubbornness and dogmatism.” (“Digging Up Clues,” p. 5.) Petrie was called “the Father of Pots,” while Emerson is called “the Father of Curses.”
Sherlock Holmes is mentioned off and on in the Amelia Peabody series. An example would be in the second book, The Curse of Pharoahs, in which Amelia and Emerson, shortly after the birth of Rameses, are lured back to Egypt at the request of Lady Baskerville, to take over her late husband’s excavation in the Valley of the Kings (a dig that supposedly was under a curse). Peters tells us that the late Lord Baskerville was not the Lord Baskerville of Dartmoor and, thus, Sherlock Holmes fame, but was from another branch of the Baskerville family.
Under the pen name of Elizabeth Peters are two other series besides the Amelia Peabody series (although the Amelia series is, by far, her most well known). One is the Vicky Bliss series about a modern art historian. But even Vicky gets to travel to Egypt in Night Train to Memphis. The other series revolves around the exploits of Jacqueline Kirby, a mild-mannered librarian who, in the course of the series, turns into a romance novelist along the lines of Kathleen Turner’s character in Romancing the Stone.
Elizabeth Peters has also written 27 books under another name, Barbara Michaels. These are supernatural thrillers; the only one of which I personally have read is Ammie, Come Home, set in an old house in Georgetown in the Washington, D.C., area. Without gore and violence, these books still manage to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. As the author herself says, “I scared myself into fits writing Ammie, Come Home . . . I tell you, around 1:30, when the darkness closed in and there was nobody awake, I would jump right out of my socks at the slightest sound” (“The Unofficial Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels/Barbara Mertz Page,” by Monica Sheridan, p. 3.)
Thus far, there has been no mention of a possible film or TV mystery series based on the Amelia Peabody mysteries. However, that oversight has not kept legions of Elizabeth Peters fans from coming up with their own ideas of who would make a good Amelia or Emerson. The results of an amusing Internet survey indicate that suggestions for the role of Emerson—much the larger of the two lists, from which we can deduce that Peters’ women fans find Emerson as enthralling as Amelia does!—range from Colin Firth (Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice) to John Rhys Davies (“Sallah” in the Indiana Jones series). Suggestions for Amelia range from Emma Thompson to Marina Sirtis (Counselor Troi on Star Trek, the Next Generation). I, however, agree with the person who compiled the survey results, who said “I prefer my own idea of how things should be.”