The Curse Of The Pharaohs (Amelia Peabody #2), by Elizabeth Peters
I have to admit that I liked this book a lot more than I did the previous volume of the series, in which Amelia Peabody showed herself to be a shrill feminist of the most annoying kind. That is not to say that this novel is perfect. There is still too much in the way of domestic hostility between Peabody and her husband Emerson, who is shown here as being just a bit too choleric, someone who in our present age would be viewed as somewhat of a bully to others, but whose excesses are excused by his strong-willed wife. We get to see Amelia as a mother, but as a somewhat distant one whose child similarly appears to be growing up to be a rather bossy and demanding person like both of his parents. We also see plenty of racial stereotyping here, as the native Egyptians come off poorly, whether as opium addicted Copts who are disliked by superstitious Muslims or thieving local Egyptians. No one comes to a novel like this looking for political correctness, because the cultural imperialism of the book’s English protagonist, who is prone to referring to the reader in a meta form frequently is in tension with the protagonist and author’s obvious feminism, which is thankfully less tedious this time around.
The novel itself takes a while to get started. At the beginning of the novel Amelia is a mother and Emerson, her husband, is serving as a professor and both are settling down, or so it would seem (unlikely given the fact that there are lots of novels left to go). The death of a nobleman amateur Egyptologist whose wife was an old acquaintance of Emerson (and who draws Amelia’s instant jealousy) leads to some arguing about whether they are to go to Egypt or not, and by the time they get to Egypt to seek to solve a what is obviously a pretended mummy’s curse that terrifies the superstitious natives, the novel has progressed a fair amount. As might be expected, there are some bodies found, and some people who are rescued before they are killed, and in a somewhat surprising but not unwelcome twist, both husband and wife end up fingering the correct killer in a dramatic scene. For the most part, this is at least competent historical mystery writing, even with its occasional flaws.
And some may find those flaws to be endearing. In many ways I think I would prefer reading this novel (and possibly the whole series) framed with the perspective of Emerson rather than Peabody, but I can understand why this series is popular and what sort of audience it is aimed at. If the author is clearly a first wave feminist and someone who would probably find herself irritated by postcolonialist rhetoric that seems to undermine her own privileged status as a Westerner interested in ancient history and exotic Middle Eastern locales where the characters clearly act like elites whose knowledge is vital in interpreting ruins surrounded by a native culture that seems to lack the education and intellectual curiosity to do the job properly themselves. In this particular book we even have a young woman with a horrible mother who is one of those impossibly popular women who everyone falls in love with, which is rapidly becoming a somewhat irritating trope in this series. Yet, in a perverse way, the irritations of Amelia and the framing of this book do give it a somewhat distinctive quality that feels comfortable, even if still somewhat irritating, and it does at least make the novel feel cozy.