Deeds Of The Disturber (Amelia Peabody #5), by Elizabeth Peters
This book comes at an interesting place in that it follows the earlier books in the series (and makes reference to several of them) but also manages to move the series forward in some important ways. In many ways, the lead characters are somewhat in denial still about being sleuths and this book demonstrates many of the elements familiar in mystery novels–characters want to deny that they are trying to solve mysteries or involving themselves in the affairs of others, the sleuths have an ambivalent relationship with the local police that involves a high amount of mistrust. None of these things are in the least surprising. After all, anyone who reads any mystery novel where the main character is some kind of independent/amateur sleuth is going to face some implicit questions as to why they are trying to solve mysteries when there are professionals on the beat. The fact that this particular novel takes place in England as opposed to Egypt, although it deals with questions of Egyptology, allows the writer to broaden the scope of her writing to deal with life in England and the efforts of people to fit in with high society and deal with the shadowy appeal of Egyptian religion and practices in late Victorian England.
The novel itself is a compelling one, definitely a step up from the usual plot. A mysterious death is viewed by Amelia as a murder although initially as an accidental death, and the increasing body count and activity of a strange masked priest only increase suspicion and the pressure on the Emerson family to solve it. This is only increased by the jealousy going on over an old partner of Mr. Emerson’s, the troubles that the Emersons have in taking care of some relatives, one of whom is more than a little bit too fond of sweets, and Ramses being Ramses, along with the investigations of two reporters, one of which bears a strong resemblance to Amelia and has some unwanted male attention. A lot of cross-currents and a dramatic showdown with the bad guys–who are no master criminals but certainly manage to do a lot of damage, lead to a satisfying conclusion that demonstrates a darker side to English life (particularly English academic and intellectual life) and to the recognition that their skills in sleuthing have put the Emerson clan and their servants and relatives and friends in some danger, something that may affect later novels.
There is a lot to appreciate here in this novel, not least the change of location from Egypt to England, albeit with the Egyptian theme (including the poetic title) kept firmly in the forefront. The author’s exploration of opium dens and sexually transmitted diseases are intriguing, and the author presents the way that young people of unconventional parents can easily become corrupted by the sort of information that is available to them that others may not be as sensitive to. One wonders, though, when the Emersons themselves will become self-aware that they are sleuths and will plan accordingly rather than persist in denial. After five mystery novels, involving somewhere around a dozen or more murders and numerous plots that have been directed against one or more member of the Emerson clan (including such unoriginal ideas as locking the Emersons in some sort of place suitable for drowning and kidnapping Ramses, which have appeared multiple times now), one would think that Amelia Peabody and her relatives would just openly admit that they are sleuths and to get on with things, rather than to pretend that they are just innocent academics minding their own business. Nobody believes that.