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Review – The Painted Queen, Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess

March 16, 2018

Constable Edition cover – Harriet Taylor Seed


This is, presumably, the final Amelia Peabody mystery. Elizabeth Peters, one of the pen names of Barbara Mertz,  died in 2013 leaving The Painted Queen as an unfinished manuscript which the family asked Joan Hess, her friend and fellow crime writer, to complete. Due to various circumstances, it wasn’t until last year that The Painted Queen was finished and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that my reservation got to the top of the queue at my local library and I got my hands on this long awaited final installment.

Barbara Mertz photo by Osmund Geier

Elizabeth Peters and cat, photo by Osmund Grier, copyright

In the interests of full disclosure and bias, I should state that I am a big fan of Elizabeth Peters. I first came across the Amelia Peabody books in, the now demised and much missed, Murder One on Charing Cross Road while looking for a present for my father-in-law. I know I bought him Crocodile on a Sandbank, Street of the Five Moons and an Edward Marston train detective book thing (turns out Edward Marston is a non de plume too, what is it with all these pseudonyms?) I am not entirely altruistic in my book gifting, there’s a good chance if I give you a book then I’m intending to read it when I next come to stay and this was definitely the case with the Elizabeth Peters books (as you may have gathered by my inability to remember the title, the Edward Marston didn’t appeal – to me, John on the other hand preferred trains to Egypt, read all the Edward Marston books and then moved on to Andrew Martin which demonstrates something even if I have no idea what that might be). Anyway, before I lose myself in a welter of parentheses and authors, Elizabeth Peters appealed because, well, crime and archaeology, what’s not to like? And, it turned out I wasn’t alone, lots and lots of people liked Elizabeth Peters’ books, particularly the Amelia Peabody ones, among the fans were lots and lots of archaeologists particularly EgyptologistsThe Painted Queen begins with a foreword by Salima Ikram, a woman easily as formidable as Amelia Peabody*, Professor Ikram says:

One of the great delights of the Amelia Peabody books is that in each one, Amelia combines murder, mayhem and mystery with solid doses of Egyptology and history … Through her books, Barbara managed to seduce readers into caring not only about Amelia, Emerson and their circle, but also about Egyptology. She managed to educate without bludgeoning people with too many facts; she humanised archaeologists and explained what we do in the field, dull though it often is, with its endless sifting of sand in the quest for telling ‘odds and ends’.

It is hardly surprising that Elizabeth Peters used Egyptology as a background for the Amelia books, she had a Phd in Egyptology from the University of Chicago where she’d been supervised by John A Wilson and wrote two histories of Egypt in addition to her many, many novels. More surprising was her deftness of touch, as Professor Ikram says she didn’t bludgeon you with information, instead it worked as part of the over all story, but there was that depth of knowledge informing her work, she visited the locations, researched the subject, called on her many Egyptology friends for information and advice, Professor Ikram again:

Although she never excavated in Egypt, she had visited more sites than many archaeologists. I particularly remember a bumpy ride to the rarely visited Abu Rawash [site of the Pyramid of Djedefre], a site that Barbara had wanted to see for some time, as she was thinking of featuring it in a new book. When we got there, we carried out an almost total suspension of Barbara over the burial pit of the pyramid so that she could see what it looked like, and concluded with an Amelia-style picnic at the edge of the pyramid, in the mortuary temple.

And, it wasn’t just the Egyptology that was so well informed, yes, many of the events in the Amelia books are improbable (the sheer number of murders, impostors, last minute rescues and dramatic denouements is preposterous to say nothing of Ramses’ precociousness and Nefret’s background), but they are improbable events that take place within real late nineteenth/early twentieth century happenings and regularly involve real people. The Sudanese uprising led by Muhammad Ahmad, Women’s suffrage, the Denshawai incident and other uprisings against Turkish and British rule in Egypt, the tensions under the protectorate, the 1st World War all figure in Peters’ plots, all impinge on the behaviour and actions of her characters in one way or another. Peters’ characters interact with real officials from the Egyptian Service des Antiquités including Auguste Mariette, Gaston Maspero and Jacques de Morgan. Egyptologists such as Flinders Petrie, Archibald Sayce, Margaret Murray (and many, many more) are all name-checked, others including Howard Carter and Theodore M. Davis make regular appearances in the books. Government officials for example, Lord Cromer, Lord Kitchener and Lord Allenby all feature in the stories, all elicit a reaction from her characters.

Barbara Mertz copyright Barbara Mertz

On site – copyright

Furthermore – and this is where her deftness of touch comes in – Peters’ characters react, accepting various plot devices, as people of their education and station would react. Peters gives them the opportunity to grow, mature, to modify their views as the series progresses. Although the Emersons and their entourage are presented as remarkably free from the racist and colonialist attitudes of their nationality and class, their tolerance is used to highlight the more usual attitudes around them. Yet, even these paragons of liberality have their moments where they revert to the social mores of their rank, probably the most telling example of this is in The Ape Who Guards the Balance when it is discovered that David Todros, the grandson of their reis Abdullah, and Lia Emerson have fallen in love. Initially, with the exception of Emerson, all the adults react with horror, how can they marry when she is British and he is Egyptian? Amelia’s struggle to accept the situation is well done and again demonstrates Elizabeth Peters’ knowledge of the era and understanding of her characters.

This appreciation of period comes through in the ways her characters wear the right clothes – no matter how many shirts Emerson wrecks he always wears a shirt on site with trousers, never shorts, and dresses formally – under duress – for dinner, as does Ramses. Amelia experiments with dig costume, voluminous ‘Turkish’ trousers, divided skirts and finally breeches under a long jacket. A jacket she never removes or even unbuttons.

Barbara Mertz photo by Shaun N Campbell

Elizabeth Peters in character, photo by Shaun N Campbell, copyright

On formal occasions she wears the dresses and hats of a wealthy woman while Nefret, who inherits a great deal of money, wears dresses by Worth and other haute couture designers. Her characters speak as they should, yes occasional Americanisms creep in, but on the whole they speak, well, in character whether they are talking to others of their class or impersonating various people. Which isn’t to say that the books are all brilliant masterpieces of literature, they’re not, they’re improbable fiction, but improbable fiction well done. And, they are variable, personally I don’t think she really hit her stride with Amelia until the 3rd instalment – The Mummy Case – the plot of The Last Camel Died at Noon is just plain ludicrous and makes me think of the Skeksis and Podlings in The Dark Crystal.

So, after what’s turned into something of a eulogy to her, is The Painted Queen a worthy addition to the Elizabeth Peters canon?

With all due respect and sympathy to Joan Hess the answer has to be – not really, no.

Obviously, it is hugely difficult to come into a long established series – there are 19 previous novels in the series – and to add to the complication this book slots in to the middle of the series. Joan Hess recognised this:

…the topic turned to Barbara’s unfinished manuscript. I will admit my gut froze as I sensed the inevitable question would I complete The Painted Queen? My first response was an adamant refusal. The idea of attempting to capture her voice, her erudite style, her wit and her vast knowledge of archaeology in the early twentieth century, seemed ludicrous.

It would be completely unfair to judge Ms Hess’ abilities as a writer on this book alone, and, were I a serious reviewer, I would have read some of her independent fiction for comparison. But I’m not and I haven’t, and on the basis of this I have no intention of doing so. If you’re a Joan Hess fan you can tell me what I’m missing.

Obviously there’s little actual Egyptology, and it must be very difficult to write already created characters without descending into parody, and Ms Hess doesn’t parody Elizabeth Peters, but equally she doesn’t bring the characters to life. The vocabulary used by them is all wrong, full of Americanisms and anachronisms, there’s no subtlety or deftness. Nor does Ms Hess have an understanding of the social conventions of the time – she has Daoud, one of their Egyptian workmen, join Amelia for tea on the terrace at Shepheard’s Hotel, which simply wouldn’t have happened in 1912. Although as a historian and archaeologist these misconceptions are irritating and to an enthusiast the characterisation is unconvincing I guess as a stand alone murder-mystery none of this would really matter if the plot was strong enough. But, it’s not. There’s a lot of it, mind. The queen of the title refers to the head of Nefertiti recovered from Amarna by Ludwig Borchardt of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft. Rather than dealing with the, still unresolved, question of how Borchardt persuaded the antiquities inspector, Gustave Lefebvre, to allow him to take such a fine item back to Germany, The Painted Queen has a different excavator locate the head, a storyline involving antiquities forgers, a race around Cairo, kidnappings, druggings and the inevitable rescues – I’m still not sure what the purpose of this is. Another strand involves the German invention of MDMA – Ecstasy – which is being used by a German agent, posing as a missionary, in an attempt to incite the Copts to rebel against British rule while the Germans invade Egypt, no, really**. The main story, as I understand it, is a murderous band of brothers (and their mother) with prophetic christian names intent on killing Amelia and Ramses in revenge for the death of their half-sibling. The christian names presage how they will die once they have, anticlimactically, failed in their assassinations – so Judas is stabbed in the back, Guy gets blown up, Cromwell is beheaded by a train and Absalom gets caught up in a tree and dies. I think this is supposed to be amusing and/or ironic. – in an Alanis Morissette understanding of irony.

Elizabeth Peters and another cat - hey, I like cats - photo by

Elizabeth Peters and another cat – hey, I like cats – photo uncredited, copyright

So, after many words my advice is: if you’re new to the Amelia books don’t start here; if you don’t like them this isn’t going to change your mind; and if you are a fan but haven’t yet read this one then go back and re-read an old one instead. That’s what I intend to do.

And, on that note, I will wish you all a wonderful weekend of books and cats or whatever takes your fancy


*I speak from experience having met her, we are nearly the same age, she is very intelligent, articulate, elegant – in her presence I managed none of these things, but at least didn’t pour coffee down myself which is what I usually manage to do in these situations, I am hanging on to that shred of pride.

**I have no idea what invasion plots were being devised in 1912, they may well have been this ridiculous, but it turns out Ecstasy was invented then by German Pharmacists, who knew?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Martha permalink
    March 16, 2018 9:38 pm

    Saturday 17th March is the feast day of St Gertrude, patron saint of Cats, according to the Dean of Durham’s cat, Badger, who tweets about such things!

    • harngroup permalink*
      March 16, 2018 10:12 pm

      Thank you, that is good to know and I shall inform the feline members of this household. I think they think EVERY day is their day and every saint devoted to them – I wonder how St Patrick felt about cats since he shares St Gertrude’s day. Anyway, thank you Martha and Badger

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