Children of the Storm
by Elizabeth Peters
Published by William Morrow
416 pages, 2003
Tomb It May Concern
Reviewed by Cindy Chow
Prolific author Elizabeth Peters accomplishes two extremely difficult tasks in Children of the Storm, her 15th historical mystery (after last year's The Golden One) to feature archaeologist and amateur sleuth Amelia Peabody Emerson. First, she manages to make a novel based in Egyptian archaeology fascinating, even to that vast majority of readers whose knowledge in this field is based on multiple viewings of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Second, she admirably breathes new life into a long-running series by allowing her characters to grow and change, while keeping them familiar to veteran fans.
It's December 1919, and the Great War is finally over. With peace comes a reduction in the dangers facing Amelia's only natural child, the daring and prolix Walter Peabody Emerson, nicknamed Ramses, who had been working for British Intelligence. The postwar calm also means that Amelia (now a grandmother), along with her distinguished archaeologist husband, Radcliffe Emerson, and their extended family can return to their true love: excavating another ancient site in Egypt's Valley of Kings. The prize this time will be the buried remains of four royal High Priestesses, who traveled into the afterlife in style, accompanied by lavish jewelry and beautifully beaded robes.
But the relative serenity is soon broken. It's discovered that several of the dig's most valuable finds, which had been placed temporarily in the Luxor home of wealthy excavation sponsor Cyrus Vandergelt, awaiting a judgment on their international dispersal, have been stolen. And an Italian restorer named Martinelli, who was staying in the house, has vanished as well. Vandergelt immediately calls for help from his dear friends Amelia and Emerson, worried that he will be held responsible for this crime. Despite her husband's predictable objections concerning meddling and arrogance, Amelia eagerly declares her intention to investigate these thefts.
Meanwhile, Ramses is involved in an extremely odd -- and embarrassing -- adventure of his own. He's kidnapped by a veiled young woman claiming to be Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of joy, motherhood and love, who assures him that he's under her protection, and promises that his captivity will be, well, pleasurable. The resourceful Ramses quickly escapes and returns to his family, but finds that his wife (and adopted sister), Nefret, has difficulty believing his outlandish tale. Amelia, on the other hand, hilariously creates a list of jilted women whom she believes have good reason to seize her son. This abduction only deepens the puzzlement surrounding the missing invaluable artifacts.
One of the results of producing a well-established series is that, over time, a large cast of principal and secondary characters is created, each of whom can be deployed onto the stage, as needed. Children of the Storm brings back Sethos, aka the Master Criminal, the head of a Middle Eastern antiquities racket and Emerson's former rival for Amelia's affections. Despite the earlier discovery that Sethos is also Radcliffe Emerson's illegitimate half-brother, and although he improved his standing by working as a British spy during the war, the Emersons do not fully trust his declarations that he has reformed. They suspect Sethos may have had a hand in the recent thefts. The appearance of his illegitimate daughter, Molly, only exacerbates their distrust. Even as Amelia decides to meddle and engineer a reconciliation between Molly (now calling herself Maryam and working as a lady's companion) and Sethos, she can't help wondering whether the girl has happened into their lives again by chance ... or in pursuit of retribution. After all, the Emersons were responsible for the death of Molly's mother (who tried to murder Amelia in He Shall Thunder in the Sky, 2000).
Amid an atmosphere of tension, heavily spiced by rising Egyptian nationalism, the Emersons pursue their inquiries with typical intrepidity and despite violent attacks on their friends, the threat of a riot, and the need to baby-sit their assorted precocious offspring. After Molly/Maryam is assaulted in the street, Amelia (from whose viewpoint most of this story is told) speculates on reasons for that molestation, and whether it relates to the family's investigation. Ramses tells his mother:
"What I want to know is why she was attacked today. I thought when I heard her scream that some nervous female tourist was being harassed by an importunate beggar, but the fellow was actually slashing at her with a knife. That sort of thing is unheard of."
The Emersons' plans are further disrupted by the appearance of a childlike young man named Justin and his enormous, unattractive bodyguard. Justin, who happens to be the grandson of Mrs. Fitzroyce, Maryam's employer, becomes enamored with Nefret and attempts to follow the Emersons on their escapades. In familiar Peters fashion, all of these complications are eventually tied together, leading to an action-packed conclusion that features a boat chase, a daring rescue attempt, and Amelia donning an eye patch to masquerade as an Egyptian fisherman.
Peters, one of the pen names used by 75-year-old Egyptologist Dr. Barbara Mertz (she's also written other novels as "Barbara Michaels"), enriches her Peabody-Emerson adventures with her own love of Egypt and its pharaonic past. What is most delightful about this traditional mystery series, though, is that each new installment welcomes you back into the embrace of an eccentric but warm and familiar family. Thirty-five years have passed for the characters, and 28 years for Peters' readers, since Amelia Peabody and her husband-to-be met (in Crocodile on the Sandbank, 1975) during her 1884 Grand Tour through the Middle East, shortly after she'd received her inheritance. Yet while Amelia and Emerson are no longer the youthful singles they started out as, they continue to throw themselves eagerly into solving murders and other criminal offenses.
In Children of the Storm, the intrigues surrounding those filched relics and other "accidents" that plague Amelia's clan seem almost secondary to the wonderful dynamics and interactions between family members. Radcliffe Emerson, known by the sobriquet Father of Curses, thanks to the vociferous and expansively profane vocabulary he unleashes during excavations, is a doting grandfather who delights in explaining the processes of mummification to his grandchildren. The independent Amelia is an extremely headstrong matriarch known for her defensive -- and offensive -- skill at wielding a parasol as a weapon. Her relationship with Emerson has remained fresh and entertaining throughout this series, the couple bound by their love of arguing as much as their love for each other. The second generation, including Ramses and Nefret, as well as the Emersons' other adopted child, artist David Todros, and his wife (Ramses' cousin Lia), seem intent on continuing to link high-minded archaeological endeavors with criminal probes. No doubt, the extremely precocious third generation will contribute to the complications and satisfactions this lighthearted series offers. (For readers new to these books, an editor's note dissects the complex Peabody-Emerson family tree.)
Longtime Peters fans should appreciate how many characters from past works reappear in these pages, with several loose ends from previous plots being tied up nicely. However, for readers just discovering this series and those like me who suffer from limited memory retention, it can be a struggle to recall just who did what in which installment. Peters has footnoted such references in her past novels, but fails to do so here -- perhaps because the number of necessary annotations would exceed even the overabundance familiar from a Nicholson Baker novel. Regardless, Children of the Storm does less to frustrate new readers with absent information than it does to entertain them with wit and daring and clever repartee. The Maryland-based author, who received a Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1998, may not be Indiana Jones, but she's no slouch when it comes to whipping up excitement in the desert sands. | April 2003
Cindy Chow is a librarian at Kaneohe Public Library, located on the Windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. She's a regular contributor to "The Rap Sheet," January's monthly crime fiction newsletter, and also reviews books for The No Name Café site.