Lion In The Valley (Amelia Peabody #4), by Elizabeth Peters
At this stage in a novel series, particularly one that goes on a long time (and there are a lot more novels to read, as this is only the fourth of some twenty novels in the series), there are various ways that the author will try to spice things up, and in this particular novel we have a writer who is becoming more self-aware about her craft, to the point where the novel itself has become more opaque. There is an introductory section where the anonymous narrator seeks to avoid responsibility for any libelous statements made in the book itself, and in the account itself Amelia Peabody has ceased to be merely a character within the novel but has made various edits to her own account, making this novel far more self-referential than it has any right being. All of this suggests a certain degree of unreliability about the narrator and some thoughts about the issue of verisimilitude in the writing of novels. Does it make the novel any more enjoyable to read? Not really, though it does not detract from the enjoyment of the novel either, so at least it does not make it less enjoyable to read a novel that is more layered than previous volumes and with the promise of similar layers in future volumes.
This novel is the second in a row that deals with the master criminal, and if you are fond of that sort of narrative you will find much to enjoy here. There are plenty of cliches here, and sometimes the characters act in a bit of a flat manner, but if you have read this far along, you are likely going to be tolerant to the intuitive Amelia, her choleric husband, who has a few moments here of being suspicious of his wife’s loyalty to him, and their bratty and punchable son Ramses, who is always going off by himself no matter what mortal peril the family is under and whose vulnerability to being kidnapped becomes a major plot point here. Of course there are archaeological investigations, this time of the black pyramid, and there are frequent callbacks to the third volume of the series where the Emersons were almost drowned in said pyramid by agents of the master criminal. There is also endless speculation about the master criminal, much of it ending up both right and wrong; I won’t spoil it, but I must admit that I found the big reveal to be more than a little bit cringeworthy and we’ll leave it at that.
When reading a novel like this, one is faced with a bit of a dilemma, and it is clear that the author is faced with a dilemma too, one that is common to series literature. How is it that one is able to provide for enough compelling material to fill an entire lengthy series while making each novel itself worthwhile as well. On the one hand, having a consistent villain makes it easier to come up with crimes and allows for a high degree of parsimony when it comes to creating characters, but at the same time having characters escape judgment only to reappear over and over again can get rather tedious, and here one can see that if the “master criminal” is able to be identified in his multiple guises by all of the members of the Emerson family, then he will just keep showing up over and over again, to the point of annoyance. Even after two novels his behavior and antics are getting a bit frustrating, and I hope there are not ten or more novels more of this conceit, because that would drastically reduce my interest in the series as a whole. For the moment, though, we continue with a satisfying if perhaps a bit ominous installment.