~~Moved from GR~~
Crocodile on the Sandbank
by Elizabeth Peters
I've never really understood why people try to decide what books they would bring if they were trapped on a desert island, because (1) it's a little unlikely in our current issues with overpopulation, (2) even if it occurred, I suspect you wouldn't be able to plan ahead, and (3) I'll bet you'd just end up stuck with trashy beach reads. So let's just say that when the zombie apocalypse comes, I'm definitely going to make sure I have some Elizabeth Peters books in my basement or bomb shelter, preferably on audio (more on that later), but I'll take it as print if necessary.
As with all of my favorite series, it's difficult to describe precisely what boosts the Amelia Peabody books from "excellent" to "fantastic" reads. At first blush, the series is fairly innocuous, just a rather well-done Victorian-era comedy/mystery/gothic-novel spoof. Our story is narrated by Amelia Peabody, a thirty-something spinster who spent the first few decades of her life caring for her absent-minded professor of a father. Recently released from service by his death, she decides to embark on a world tour with a female companion in tow. When her trip is waylaid in Amarna, Egypt, it's not long before we have all of the classic elements of the Victorian gothic: a melodramatic first-person female narrator, a dark, brooding, and short-tempered Rochesterian love interest, a handsome, clean-cut hero, a beautiful "ruined" heroine, etc. The first two books are even a little on the Scooby-Doo side; we have an oh-so-scary potential haunt wreaking havoc on all in sundry, and the very mechanism of the haunt is going to direct you to the solution. It is intended as a spoof of the gothic (Wilkie Collins, in particular); expect it to get spoofy.
As run-of-the-mill as I've made the series sound so far (yeah, great sales job there, Carly), there are a few aspects that raise it above its competitors. First of all, there's the history itself. I've read a lot of the contemporary material from this time, and Elizabeth Peters does a remarkable job in accurately capturing the voice and tone of the time as well as the archaeological aspects. The author holds a PhD in Egyptology and did masters' work in female writers and the gothic novel. Her books are meticulously researched and breathe life into this fascinating time period. Elizabeth Peters does a wonderful job balancing on the tightrope of the historical novel: while real historical figures routinely interact with her invented characters, they behave true to their real-life personalities. You end up feeling as if you are well-acquainted with both the fictional and real-life characters because Peters is so meticulous in accurately capturing the tiny minutiae of their personalities, from Wallace Budge's pretenses and pomposity to Petrie's interesting habit of expecting his underlings to eat from the opened cans of food he left lying around.
I think the other aspect that makes the series truly great for me is the voice of Amelia Peabody herself. She is a woman of her time--and yes, women as indomitable and spunky as Amelia did indeed exist in the Victorian era; take a look at the memoirs of Amelia B. Edwards if you're interested in one of the inspirations for the series. Amelia starts out with all of the xenophobic and racial prejudices of her time, all the pride in the British empire, all of the Kipling-esque disdain for "the natives," and while you will watch her opinions slowly develop over the course of the series, her changes in attitude are by no means instantaneous. She is an unreliable narrator in the best meaning of the words. Much of the humour is basically a form of dramatic irony; while Amelia prides herself on her clear vision, she has a knack for entirely misunderstanding the emotions of those around her. She routinely makes absurd statements and is actually concerned for the sudden attacks of coughing experienced by those around her. Amelia is one of the most outrageous, comedic, and oddly likeable characters I've found in my explorations through the mystery genre and definitely worth a second look.
One last thing to note: when the zombie apocalypse occurs, until the very last battery in our bunker sputters out, I plan on listening to these books on audio, narrated by the brilliant Barbara Rosenblat. I will furthermore contend that this is in fact the right way to experience the books; in an interview around book 10, Elizabeth Peters herself commented that she at one point heard her books from other narrators and decided from that point forward to forswear all audio versions; however, when her friends started telling her that they waited for her books to come out on audio, she broke down and listened to Barbara Rosenblat's version. She then promptly forced Recorded Books to get everything re-recorded by Rosenblat, and now listens to her own books on audio. Long story short, give these books a try, and better yet, try them on audio. I've got an audio of The Mummy Case, third in the series and one of my absolute favourites, packed away with my anti-zombie spray. Just being prepared.