I first encountered the Amelia Peabody mystery series immediately after my father died in a car crash. My mother was alone in a rented condo in Laguna Beach, CA. I flew to John Wayne Airport in Orange County after she called me with the news. I drove around lost in the dark for a few hours (this was pre-GPS), before I finally found the condo and my frail, shocked mother.
By the time we wept with each other and had a glass of wine, it was 3:30 am. Mom went off to bed. I tried but failed to sleep, so I rifled the condo’s bookshelves for something to read. There were several paperbacks left by former occupants, and I selected a book with the intriguing title of “The Mummy Case” by Elizabeth Peters.
And promptly fell in love. The doughty heroine of this mystery series is Amelia Peabody, a no-nonsense Victorian lady who inherits enough money from her father to set off on a grand tour of Europe and North Africa. In Egypt, she encounters a rude, abrasive, black-haired archeologist named Emerson who tends to bellow at her with rage at every turn. So naturally, they fall in love. (I have read everything Peters has written, under her two pseudonyms and her real name, Barbara Mertz, and I can always identify the romantic male lead by his rudeness and irascibility. This is a forgivable foible in my opinion.) I discovered later that Mertz was an Egyptologist, accounting for her extensive knowledge of archeology and ancient Egyptian history.
The mystery was well plotted, but more than that, I adored the humor and Amelia’s unique personality. Peters pokes gentle fun at Victorian conventions. Amelia is prone to admiring Emerson’s “sapphirine orbs” and “manly physique.” At all other times, she is practical, down-to-earth and prepared for anything. Another bow to Victoriana is Sethos, the “Master Criminal” who haunts their archeological adventures—but nurses an unquenchable tendress for Amelia.
Loving the series and its distinctive voice, I was skeptical and a bit afraid to read “The Painted Queen.” Peters died in 2013, leaving a partially finished manuscript and notes for this novel. Her close friend and fellow writer and archeologist, Joan Hess, finished the book. Attempts to continue an author’s work as a franchise—álà the “Dune” series—usually disappoint. I doubted the book would succeed and satisfy.
I am so happy to tell you I was wrong. “The Painted Queen” is faithful to its author’s original vision and style. There were very few false notes. The main one is Emerson’s rather too-frequent declarations of undying passion to Amelia. Not that Emerson never does this, but he usually restricts himself to once or twice per book.
The plot centers on the spectacular and famous painted bust of Nefertiti that was discovered in the ruins of Amarna, site of Pharoah Ankhenaton’s capitol city. The bust was spirited out of Egypt by German archeologists and now resides in Berlin, but this story centers on skullduggery aimed at stealing the statue prior to its removal from Egypt—all fictional, of course.
I chose to listen to an audiobook version of the novel. Barbara Rosenblat, my favorite voice for Amelia, narrates this book. Rosenblat’s raspy tones suit Amelia’s brisk personality, and she handles the humor with subtle slyness. Rosenblat (who is American) employs a British accent with ease and her other accents—she is required to handle German, Arabic, and French voices—seem spot-on to me, though I have no real idea what an Egyptian Arab accent sounds like, outside of Omar Sharif. She delivers a sweet, melodic voice for young women and gruff male voices that are equally convincing.
All our favorite characters come together to tell the tale—including Master Criminal Sethos. There are kidnappings, murders, disguises, poison, hallucinogenic drugs, mistaken identities, and misdirections of all sorts as our heroes and heroines battle to save the bust from the clutches of the villains, dodging assassins as they go. It’s a satisfying adventure that wraps up every plot thread, with the exception of one. Ramses and Nefret, whom faithful readers will know are destined for each other but forever being torn apart—are now both free and obviously interested in one another, but they are not united by the end of the story. I believe there may be yet another Amelia Peabody tale in the future.
Given the deft, note-perfect character of “The Painted Queen,” I am very much looking forward to it.