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 Four Trowels

A RIVER IN THE SKY

By: Elizabeth Peters
HarperCollins Publishers: New York City
2010 (HC)

It is August, 1910, and Elizabeth Peters’ most cherished creations, Radcliffe Emerson and Amelia Peabody are bored silly with their patrician existence in the family manor in Kent, England.  Ramses is in Palestine, working on an excavation at Samaria under the direction of Harvard Egyptologist, George Reisner, and the rest of their extended family is spread across England.  But perhaps most importantly, it has been a long four years since the previous Peabody novel, Tomb of the Golden Bird, was published, and that is simply too long a wait for dedicated followers of the Emerson/Peabody saga! 

A River in the Sky opens in a comfortably predictable fashion with the dashing, handsome, and opinionated Emerson pontificating upon the historical inaccuracies of the Old Testament.  It is perhaps divine retribution for this apostasy that he is visited by the Honourable Major George Morley and the exceedingly strange Reverend Plato Panagopoulos.  Emerson becomes nearly apoplectic when Morley beseeches him to join in an expedition to Jerusalem to find the long lost Ark of the Covenant!  Panagopoulos then commences to babble uncontrollably in Hebrew, Latin and Greek—then calmly returns to nibbling on his biscuit.  The reader can no longer be in doubt—another Emerson/Peabody adventure has begun in earnest! 

Despite his disdain for all things smacking of organized religion, Emerson is entreated by His Majesty’s Government (or at least its Security Branch) to accept Morley’s cockamamie offer to enlist Emerson (and of course Amelia) in the quest for the Ark because of the continuing tensions and the geopolitical situation in Palestine.  (Does this seem to be a somewhat familiar, yet rather contemporary theme?)  The Ottoman Empire is crumbling and Germany stands ready to step in as the new “savior” of the Arab people.  France and Great Britain stand equally ready to dash Germany’s imperial aspirations—with their own imperial aspirations. 

The Government believes Morley may, in fact, be a German spy and/or Morley’s excavation could provide a flashpoint to ignite hostilities among the Arab, Jewish and Christian populations of Palestine.  Reluctantly, Emerson agrees to establish an excavation near Morley’s planned dig to keep an eye on him and his activities.  Meanwhile, Ramses finds himself the target of two half-hearted attacks on his person; shortly thereafter the Reisner dig is visited by an exotically beautiful young woman, Mme Hilda von Eine, a self-identified Hittite scholar, and her equally mysterious “fellow traveler,” known only as Mansur.   

Ramses curiosity and suspicions are aroused by the appearance of the curious twosome, and when he steals upon the von Eine encampment by night, he stumbles upon a young and naďve British spy, who has infiltrated the von Eine compound.  He suspects that the beautiful scholar and her accomplice are either German spies or are bent on fomenting an Arab insurrection against the Turks, or both.  Ramses’ second foray to the camp finds signs of a hasty departure and the shallow grave of the young British spy, whose throat has been slashed.  In short order, Ramses is taken prisoner by Mansur, but his imprisonment proves to be a total confusion to him.  Is Mansur the villain he first appears to be?  Is Hilda von Eine also a prisoner of Mansur—or in reality his superior?  Ramses states the puzzle best when he muses to his fellow prisoner and best friend, David, “I don’t even know who’s on whose side now.” 

Suffice it to say that irascible Emerson and the redoubtable Peabody must summon all of their skills and wiliness to rescue Ramses and David, to ascertain who is or is not a German spy, to solve the mystery of Plato Panagopoulos, and to prevent the Hon. Major George Morley from igniting an ethno-religious riot at the Dome of the Rock because of his half-baked archaeological schemes! 

Elizabeth Peters is still on top of her game in this latest Peabody adventure.  The narrative is gracefully written; the archaeological background is authoritative and accurate; the action and drama is taut; and best of all, this tale, like all of the preceding Peabody adventures, is told with great humor and whit. 

Four trowels for Peabody!

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*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.