I have a confession: I’m a little bit obsessed with murder mysteries.
And I’m not just talking about the gritty, modern types like Mark Billingham’s Thorne series – though I’ve read all of those now, I think. And there’s such a thing as too gritty; Jeffrey Deaver and Patricia Cornwell largely leave me feeling feeling ill, rather than exhilarated and slightly spooked. But I will admit to a fondess for Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series.
Back to the point.
My other fondness is for classic mysteries that are steeped in their period, the most obviously example being Agatha Christie. On summer holiday after summer holiday in Greece I’d plough through Marple after Marple, Poirot after Poirot and occasionally dip into those weird ones like Death Comes as the End.
And it’s funny I should think of one set in Ancient Egypt, because that particular period is the focus of my new mystery heroine, Amelia Peabody.
Amelia, a Victorian feminist Egyptologist-slash-detective, is the creation of Elizabeth Peters (a pseudonym for American author and, funnily enough, Egyptologist Barbara Mertz), and I’m utterly in love with her. Her story begins with the birth of her independence; sole daughter to a father who also has worthless sons, she has been left with the burden of nursing him through old age. Without a decent son to heap such privileges on, she is able to access a far more comprehensive education than most women. She also inherits the family wealth, and sets out on a solo trip to Egypt to indulge her passions. But almost as soon as she arrives, she stumbles from one peculiar incident to another, and murderous intent is in the air…
The series has now swelled to more than fifteen volumes, and Amelia has amassed an extended family, but even many books later – with grown up children – she doesn’t lose her edge. She doesn’t just pay lip service to feminism; she lives it. Thanks to her education, she quickly picks up the moniker of the ‘lady doctor’, and while the early novels repeatedly stress her dedication to breaking female convention and fighting for opportunities and rights for her sisters, subsequent volumes see her facing her own latent prejudices and class and race privilege as well.
It’s inevitable that in some of the exchanges with the locals in Egypt there is going to be an element of uncomfortable colonialism. There’s also the inescapable sense of gracious white saviours, at least at first, although care is taken to stress the abilities of the local women to figure out their own ways of gaining power (though sadly this is often, though not always, through the sex trade, criminal enterprise or similar). Over time that starts to erode, and relationships grow to the point that they become known as her ‘Egyptian family’ even before that bond is cemented in law by a marriage. Several Egyptian women emerge as progressive and trailblazing in their own right, fighting for opportunities and status rather than having it graciously conferred on them.
Is it perfect? No. What is? Amelia is a woman who still carries enormous privilege, even as she lives in a world with very restricted roles for women. But what’s great is that the books tackle those issues head on in a way I’ve not seen in a long time – and certainly not in this setting before.
Best of all, they’re written in the most marvellously indulgent fashion. Sometimes when I ready back through my writing, I realise I have a bit of a fondness for slightly old-fashioned terminology (‘marvellously’, for one, and I’m also keen on ‘rather’); here I can indulge in that to my heart’s content. Amelia’s erudition is a delicious masterclass in Victorian melodrama. She doesn’t think, he ‘ratiocinates’. There’s a shadowy figure that dogs their heels over several books that she insists – to everyone’s annoyance – on labelling “the Master Criminal”. She lectures and quotes, pontificates and pries; in summary, she’s absolutely wonderful.
It’s impressive how well American Peters has come down on the right side of tea-drinking, carriage-riding twee-tastic Englishness, too. Although there is an element of cariacature, it’s all swept up in the general overblown nonsense of it all. The icing on the cake is a strong vein of wry humour and a cheeky nod to sexual chemistry – the series could teach E. L. James a thing or two about subtlety since it’s extremely passionate without a single graphic moment.
I’m very grateful for my beautiful and brilliant friend, and fellow Bea contributor, Erin Leclerc, for recommending these books to me. I got the first four in a bargain collection for Kindle, and suggest that if any of that sounds appealing, you do so too. Or buy paper versions. Or visit a library. Go on, then.