The Serpent on the Crown
Amelia Peabody Emerson is not your typical Victorian gentlewoman. Yes, she has a butler-and-housekeeper-staffed estate in England, and she gives her hair 100 strokes every night at her dressing table. But she also wields a deadly parasol, knows how to fahddle with the proprietor of every suk in Cairo, and takes cucumber sandwiches in dusty hands for luncheon in the shade of whatever tomb she is excavating. Married to a well-built, hot-tempered archaeologist (known throughout Egypt as the “Father of Curses”), with an expert in ancient languages for a son, and a daughter-in-law who is the former high priestess of a lost civilization and now a doctor, Amelia and her household attract murder and mayhem every archaeological season.
In The Serpent on the Crown, the 17th Amelia Peabody mystery by Elizabeth Peters (one of several pseudonyms of Barbara Mertz), the Emersons are just settling in to their 1922 excavation season when a popular novelist begs them to take custody of a valuable artifact she believes killed her husband—and then promptly disappears. Has she been kidnapped, or is it a publicity stunt? Who—or what—is the black-cloaked figure following them? Is the statue cursed as she claims? How did such a rare piece come to be in her husband’s collection? And from what undiscovered tomb did it come? Amelia straps on her tool belt (outfitted with a knife, matches, and a flask of whiskey, in additional to other useful items) and rounds up her brood to solve this mystery before it interferes with their work a moment longer.
Peters/Mertz has been writing this series since 1975, when Amelia and Emerson were introduced to each other (and the world) in Crocodile on the Sandbank. It is the only mystery series I follow religiously. Endowed with more wit, esoteric vocabulary, and British manners than one family can bear, the Emersons are pure fun. I never expect much out of these books, but on the rare occasion when I am pressed for some detail of the ancient Egyptian world, I am delighted to realize that, thanks to Amelia (and her creator, who has a Ph.D. in Egyptology), the info is tucked away in my brain.
Along with this installment, I finally spent some time with Amelia Peabody’s Egypt: A Compendium, edited by Elizabeth Peters and Kristen Whitbread. It’s a fact-and-fiction collection of illustrations and essays introducing the figures, politics, and customs of British Egypt as the Emersons would have known it. One essay, for example, uses a box of dressmaker’s receipts “found” in Amelia’s papers to trace women’s fashions from the corset and bustle to the bicycle trousers. Educational, with lots of fun extras for Peabodyphiles.
Read more about the series—and enjoy some of Amelia’s quintessential quotes!—at the official series website.