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4 trowels

THE SERPENT ON THE CROWN

By: Elizabeth Peters
HarperCollins, New York
2005 (hc)

For those who relish their archaeological mysteries-or any kind of mystery, for that matter-there are few reading delights that can surpass the publication of a new Amelia Peabody novel. Elizabeth Peters can be depended upon for rollicking adventure, intricate plots and very often laugh-out-loud dialogue, and in this, her 17th Amelia Peabody novel, she does not disappoint! In fact, I believe this to be one of her very best outings, and I cringe when I read that the Peabody series may be winding up in the next volume or two.

The New Year of 1922 finds the Emerson entourage back in Egypt and back to the scene of many of their former adventures-Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. The bombastic figure of Mrs. Pringle Petherick, author of numerous volumes of Victorian Era vampire fiction, invades the Emerson household and literally forces upon the pater familias of the clan a small golden statuette of an Egyptian king-an artifact, she claims, that carries with it a dire curse. In an almost Marx Brothers sequence of events, Mrs. Petherick's somewhat strange stepchildren, the conflicted Adrian and the Amazonian Harriet, interrupt a dinner with near disastrous results. The statuette is identified as representative of the Amarna period, named for the Middle Egypt site founded by the "heretic" king, Akhenaton, as he attempted to force his subjects to worship the one god, Aton. While its provenance and legal ownership remain unsolved mysteries, there is no doubt but that the little statue is extremely valuable.

Despite the supposed curse of the statuette, attempts to steal the object seem to point to a more worldly plot. Greed, rather than the supernatural-the recurring figure of a black-shrouded afrit (a desert demon) that flits throughout the pages of the novel, notwithstanding-seems to be the motivation of the scoundrel who would steal the statue.

As the mystery unfolds, we are reacquainted with that wonderful ensemble of characters that Elizabeth Peters has introduced us to over the years-Peabody and Emerson, to be sure; and their son Ramses and his wife, Nefret; and now their children, Carla and David John, whose loquacious and didactic personality mirrors his father at an early age; Sethos, the "Master Criminal" of earlier novels; and new four-legged members of the household, including the almost entirely useless watchdog, Amira, and the imperious Great Cat of Re. The dynamics of this household, which expands to include servants and excavators, charm us as readers as we follow the twists and turns of the typical Peabody plot.

The adventure turns serious when the redoubtable Mrs. Petherick first goes missing from her Winter Palace Hotel suite, and is then found dead in the rose bushes behind the famed hotel. As Amelia and her family of sleuths close in on a murderer, archaeology begins to play a more prominent part in the novel as Emerson plots to gain the right to excavate in that part of the Valley of the Kings reserved to Lord Carnarvon and his chief excavator, Howard Carter. Despite the conventional wisdom that believed no undiscovered tombs remained in the Valley of the Kings, Car Narvon, Carter and now Emerson believed otherwise. And now Emerson and Ramses believed the little statue was the clue that would unlock this mystery of Egypt's long dead past.

The mysterious death of Mrs. Petherick is finally solved, despite the admissions of guilt by three different suspects, and Amelia's close brush with death at the hands of one of the culprits, and the scene is set for the next Amelia Peabody, which, something tells me, will revolve around events in the Valley of the Kings in November of 1922.

This is Elizabeth Peters and Amelia Peabody at their best. Four trowels.

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All material Copyright 2000-2014 Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse

*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.