No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, April 22, 2017

2017/44: Thunder in the Sky -- Elizabeth Peters

"It isn’t always easy to distinguish right from wrong, is it? More often the choice is between better and worse . . . and sometimes . . . sometimes the line between them is as thin as a hair. One must make a choice, though. One can’t wash one’s hands and let others take the risks . . . including the risk of being wrong." [loc. 1941]

Set in 1914 in Cairo (again, I would love to read about what happened between Falcon at the Portal and this novel). The First World War is rumbling in the background, Cairo is under martial law, and the Ottoman Empire is building up to the first Suez Offensive. The Emersons have won the Giza firman (permit) since Germans are no longer welcome in Cairo: it's a bittersweet blessing, because some of those Germans were personal friends.

Everyone is in disguise in this novel. Amelia impersonates a lady of the evening and a married woman embarking on an illicit assignation. Emerson pretends to be hopeless with a gun (and does also get to wear a disguise). Nefret -- who has used her fortune to open a womens' hospital, catering to women from all walks of life -- pretends romantic interest in someone she suspects to be a villain, possibly even a traitor. And Ramses ... well.

This is Ramses' novel, more than any of the others I've read so far. At the start of the book he's being loudly pacifist and collecting white feathers from outraged ladies. Of course, being Ramses, he has several other personae on the go, and some very good reasons for risking life and liberty. Various intelligence agencies are eager to acquire his services: unsuccessfully. David Todros, meanwhile, is in prison in India, having spoken out about Egyptian independence. (David's wife Lia, who is expecting their first child, is back in the relative safety of England.) And Wardani, the revolutionary, is gathering arms and men for a rebellion.

The Master Criminal is also in Cairo: Amelia is certain that she's identified him, despite his disguise -- but surely he'd make an effort to keep out of her way? Even though he doesn't know about the best Christmas present either?

But at the heart of the novel is the family: Amelia, Emerson, Ramses and Nefret. The novel would be a great deal shorter (and much less exciting) if they were better at talking to one another: but, by the last page, a great many things that needed to be said have been said aloud.

I opened the book to check a couple of details and found myself rereading half of it. It really is a splendid novel, and feels like a culmination -- though I know there are quite a few books set after this one.

Also, Amelia advising Ramses on matters of the heart? Sheer delight.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

2017/43: The Falcon at the Portal -- Elizabeth Peters

‘We are only demonstrating the qualities for which our superior caste is famous,’ Ramses drawled. ‘British phlegm, noblesse oblige, coolness under fire . . . What have I left out?’
‘Don’t be hateful,’ Nefret snapped.
‘That’s the part I left out,’ said Ramses. ‘Hatefulness.'[loc. 5871]
At the beginning of this novel (set in 1911-2) Nefret is finding great amusement in reading from a 'true memoir' penned by Amelia's vile nephew Percy. Unfortunately, Percy -- having written a somewhat embellished account of his own heroism -- fails to identify the person who saved him; Nefret finds out who it was, and lets the information slip; and Percy wreaks a sordid and heartbreaking revenge.

David is about to get married and is also involving himself with the independence movement in Egypt; he, too, finds himself targetted, accused of marketing fake antiquities (all too believable, considering his previous trade). Nefret makes some very poor decisions, possibly under the strain of Percy's continued proposals of marriage. But things turn out badly for her, and it's hard to see how they can be mended.

Ramses has a horrible time in this novel, too. He is also the recipient of unwanted attentions -- and his heart is still given elsewhere, still apparently unrequitedly. He's not quite as solemn as before, at least in the first half of the novel: later he has plenty of reasons for solemnity. As do others. I felt for Amelia and Emerson, watching helplessly as 'the children' -- now all full-grown adults, embarking on lives of their own which they don't share with the older generation -- move beyond their protection.

Also some murders, some brothels and some tombs.

This novel is a masterful study of Amelia's extended family, love and friction and secrets and the urgent need to protect one another at all costs. It definitely ends on a minor key: I am so very glad I had the next book, Thunder in the Sky, to hand. [Actually, I'm fairly sure that C gave me that book, long ago, as a lure into the series. It didn't work: either the time wasn't right, or I felt adrift because I didn't know or care about the characters. Sorry, C!]

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

2017/42: The Ape Who Guards the Balance -- Elizabeth Peters

Nefret had been Priestess of Isis in a community where the old gods of Egypt were worshipped, and I had a nasty suspicion she had not entirely abandoned her belief in those heathen deities. Perhaps she shared the views of Abdullah, who was something of a heathen himself: ‘There is no harm in protecting oneself from that which is not true!’[loc. 3470]

Set in London and Egypt in 1906-7 -- another big gap in the timeline, which I wish had been filled. (There are allusions to events during that period in this and later novels.)

The Ape Who Guards the Balance begins in London, where Amelia has, of course, joined the Women's Social and Political Union. She is hoping to chain herself to the railings, but instead finds herself witnessing the Master Criminal's latest theft. A little later, someone attempts to abduct Amelia, but is foiled by her husband and son. Ah well! Egypt is bound to be safer, as well as warmer and with cleaner air.

Once in Egypt, Ramses, Nefret and David acquire a rare papyrus of the Book of the Dead: but it seems someone else is after it. Meanwhile, the Emersons -- having offended several key players in the archaeology game -- are relegated to clearing the dullest tombs in the Valley of the Kings, whilst a rank amateur makes a hash of an important find.

During the course of the book both Ramses (who's flitting around Cairo in a variety of unsavoury disguises) and Amelia are taken captive; David confesses his love for a young woman, sparking an unpleasantly racist reaction in Amelia (to her credit, she does immediately question her prejudice, and is determined to overcome it); and a recurring character dies.

I do like the way that Peters combines archaeology, crime and social commentary in this and subsequent novels. And Ramses' clear-eyed affection for, and knowledge of, his parents is refreshing after Amelia's self-assured and sometimes overly-confident narrative.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

2017/41: Seeing a Large Cat -- Elizabeth Peters

"...your Western talk about love confuses me a great deal. You make such a fuss about such a simple thing!"
"It really cannot be described," Ramses said, staring abstractedly at the cat, now lying across his stomach. "It must be experienced. Like being extremely drunk."[loc. 6797]

This novel is set in Egypt in 1903. Ramses and David return, somewhat swashbucklingly, from six months with Sheik Mohammed (in which time Ramses has grown a moustache) and Nefret returns from her medical studies in London. We're also treated to excerpts from 'Manuscript H', being an edited third-person narrative based on Ramses' journal: it contrasts piquantly with his mother's first-person account of events.

Enid, nee Derbyshire, and her husband Donald Fraser have also returned to Egypt. This is because a spiritualist, Mrs Jones, has put Donald in touch with the spirit of an Ancient Egyptian princess who claims to be his soulmate. Enid, unsurprisingly, is not best pleased by this. When she and Ramses first met he offered to help her if she ever needed it: she's calling in the debt.

Meanwhile the Emersons are being warned away from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings: naturally this just encourages them to excavate, and they discover a mummified corpse dressed in modern clothing.

There is also a silly debutante who fancies herself in love with Ramses (whose affections are given elsewhere, unrequitedly), and the debutante's father, a veteran of the American Civil War, who has lost his wife. (But she has been found -- though not under the best of circumstances.)

With hindsight -- reading out of order -- I do wish that Peters had written another novel between The Hippopotamus Pool and this one: I'd have liked to see the developing relationships between Ramses, Nefret and David as they move towards adulthood, and I can't help wondering if there was a particular event that sparked Ramses' lengthy visit to Sheik Mohammed. Imagination provides ample possibilities for an exasperated Amelia and an unrepentant Ramses ...

Monday, April 17, 2017

2017/40: Lion in the Valley -- Elizabeth Peters

I felt like one of the heroes of Anthony Hope or Rider Haggard, dashing to the rescue. (Their heroines, poor silly things, never did anything but sit wringing their hands waiting to be rescued.)[loc. 16494]

In which Ramses is revealed as a Sherlock Holmes fan, the cat Bastet is seduced with chicken, and Amelia learns the name of the Master Criminal. There is also another opportunity for Amelia to flex her matchmaking muscles: in search of a minder for Ramses, she encounters a young man who calls himself 'Nemo' and is fond of hashish, and of a young woman named Enid.

Needless to say there are also pyramids, murders, cunning disguises, upper-class British twits, and plenty of opportunities for Amelia's particular brand of modesty. ('I will frankly admit – since candour is a quality I prize, and since my errors in judgment are so infrequent as to be worthy of mention – that I was mistaken as to the cause of her reticence.')

The Master Criminal is a charming villain, with an unusual motivation. (Well, he has at least as many motives as he has nefarious schemes: but one motive is especially relevant.) At least he will know better than to attempt abduction of Ramses in future ...

Great fun. But I skipped the next few and went directly to Seeing a Large Cat, due to rumours of teenaged ninja Ramses.

Watch this space ...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

2017/39: The Mummy Case -- Elizabeth Peters

my spirits rose – not, as evil-minded persons have suggested, at the prospect of interfering in matters which were not my concern, but at the imminence of the exquisite Dahshoor pyramids.[loc. 11925]

Emerson and Amelia (and their irritating son Ramses) are sulking about not being permitted to excavate proper pyramids. Instead, they are digging over some mounds of rubble. But everyone perks up when an Egyptian antiquities dealer is found hanged in his shop: not because he is an especially worthy individual, but because all the signs point to murder and mystery, which are as meat and drink to the Emerson family. Yes, even their darling child. (I blame the parents.)

Meanwhile, a village near the dig seems to have been overrun by American missionaries; a German aristocrat with more money than taste appears on the scene, accompanied by her pet lion-cub; Ramses carries out some excavations of his own; and the Egyptians are, in general, morally superior to the Americans, British and European characters.

This is the book where I began to see potential in Ramses (who is, as one character says, 'catastrophically precocious'). His interactions with the cat Bastet are delightful. And Amelia's very Victorian parenting -- even Emerson seems to think she is rather hard on her son -- is, though troublesome to a modern reader, exactly the environment in which a child of intelligence, curiosity and courage thrives. (Besides, she does turn out to have a violently maternal streak.) And it's Ramses whose actions turn the tide of the novel.

Also features a Master Criminal.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

2017/38: The Curse of the Pharaohs -- Elizabeth Peters

I was flattered that the cat stayed with me; always before she had seemed to prefer Emerson. No doubt her keen intelligence told her that the truest friend is not always the one who offers chicken.[loc. 9086]

Amelia Peabody Emerson and her redoubtable husband are off to Egypt again, after five years in England. They leave their little son Ramses in the tender care of Emerson's brother Walter and his lovely wife Evelyn. Both leap at the opportunity to excavate what might be an undisturbed royal tomb -- and given Amelia's predilection for crime-solving, it probably doesn't hurt that the discoverer of the tomb, Sir Henry Baskerville, died in mysterious circumstances.

Egypt is certainly a contrast to their sedate life in Kent. There is a vexing reporter, an American Egyptologist, the bereaved Lady Baskerville, a young man who spends most of the novel in a coma, and Madame Berengeria, who drinks a lot to assuage the Eternal Pain stemming from being the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian Queen. (Emerson is apparently her long-lost love.) There is a great deal of skulduggery, a romance that seems to be doomed, and a number of superstitious individuals --
Egyptian and otherwise -- who would rather Emerson and Amelia did not excavate the tomb, which is (of course) cursed.

Amelia is as delightfully cynical as ever ('the fact that she had not yet exterminated her mother proved that she was incapable of violence') and manages to retain her air of competence by never quite admitting when she's wrong.

I have to say I didn't enjoy this as much as Crocodile on the Sandbank: but I had already committed myself, via the four-book omnibus edition, to the series. Curse of the Pharaohs is entertaining, fast-paced and often very funny: it introduces characters who will be significant later in the series: but Amelia did not charm me quite as much as on first acquaintance.

Also, I note that in Elizabeth Peters' books, overweight individuals are seldom on the side of good -- whether neutral or actively villainous.