By Ian G. Wilson
When Elizabeth Peters died in 2013, she left behind an unfinished manuscript of one of her famous Amelia Peabody novels, titled The Painted Queen. Her agent, daughter, and a famous Egyptologist all felt that it would be a fitting tribute to finish and publish this last effort from one of the most popular mystery writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Joan Hess, a fine mystery writer in her own right, was tapped to complete the book, and although she was reluctant to do so at first, she persevered for three years and, using extensive notes and manuscript pages left behind by Peters, was able to pull together this final novel in the series.
I say final novel, though this is true only in terms of publication history. It actually fills in a period of time between the thirteenth and fifteenth books in the series, so it is a trip back in time to a previously undisclosed episode in the life of archaeologist/detective Amelia Peabody and her bombastic Egyptologist husband Emerson. It might have been helpful to have read the two novels that bookend it before tackling The Painted Queen, something I didn’t do, though it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the piece in the least.
The central mystery of the novel, as can be discerned from the colorful cover, concerns the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti, co-regent of the “heretic pharaoh” Akhenaten, discovered at the remains of Amarna in 1912 by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt. Or at least this is what ostensibly occurred. If we are to believe Peabody’s journal entries, there was a lot more to the discovery and subsequent disappearance of the bust than history tells us. That is part of the fun of the series, the fictional involvement of Peabody and her family in famous historical events in Egyptian archaeology.
The Painted Queen starts right off with a thrill as Amelia is relaxing in her bath at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo after a long return journey to Egypt to begin a new dig season with her husband:
“He did not see me at first, since the tub was in an alcove out of the line of sight of someone standing in the doorway, so I had ample time to observe him as he turned ponderously from side to side. Heavily built, with large calloused hands and coarse features, he was neatly dressed in a tweed coat and trousers, except for one singular feature—a gold-rimmed monocle in his left eye.
I was unarmed, having assumed it was unnecessary to carry weapons into the bath chamber. I have always been of the opinion that the best defense is a prompt and vigorous attack, but my current position rendered certain options untenable. My only weapons were a bar of soap, a sponge, and a towel. Thanks to the scented soap bubbles I was more or less covered, which would not be the case if I rose to my feet. I was still considering strategies when the man advanced farther into the room and caught sight of me. His arms rose, his fingers curled in a most menacing fashion as he gave me a cruel (and somewhat demented) smile. ‘You!’”
As it turns out, there are a slew of men with monocles out to get Peabody and her adult son Ramses, for reasons which become clear only later in the story.
Meanwhile, there are reports of strange goings on at Amarna, where Borchardt’s assistant, Herr Morgenstern, is running the dig in the great man’s absence. Emerson and Amelia are charged by the Service des Antiquités to investigate. When they arrive, Emerson and Amelia discover that Herr Morgenstern has dug up the bust and disappeared with it to Cairo, evidently with an aim to keeping it for himself. The strange antics of Morgenstern make for high comedy throughout the book, though the reason for his peculiar behavior is horrifying and would make headlines in today’s newspapers even if the statue weren’t involved.
The Painted Queen, like the other novels in the series, is supposedly culled from the journals kept by Peabody, and a “Manuscript H” which details in third person the exploits of Ramses and his friend David as they search Cairo for the bust, a search that ultimately leads them to the German embassy. The alternation between first and third person is abrupt and can be confusing at first, but readers will soon get the hang of it.
The book’s success depends largely on the colorful cast of characters (and there are a lot of them) and the cleverness of the mystery itself, which is very satisfying. Amelia is sharp witted and funny, her husband is brilliant, devoted to his wife, and very loud. He is so intimidating that the Egyptians have given him the nickname “Father of Curses.” In fact, there are many such nicknames floating around the story, including “The Brother of Demons” for Ramses and “The Master Criminal” for Amelia’s softhearted nemesis, Sethos. Sethos is also known as the “Master of Disguises,” and no one has ever seen his true face, which makes it difficult to know whether he is on the scene or not until he magically appears in one of his elaborate getups. Amelia and Emerson’s ward, Nefret, a medical doctor who doubles as the team’s photographer, is another clever and engaging character who holds the key to the mystery of Amelia’s monocled assassins. There is also a suspicious hirsute missionary and an obnoxiously loquacious author of cheesy romantic novels set in the desert. And these are just the major characters; the smaller roles are cast equally well.
Neither Peters nor Hess is, in my experience, a particularly “literary” writer; they write well enough to keep things moving along, and are adept at humor and cliffhangers. They also excel at dialog:
“He handed me another slip of paper, and I read it aloud. ‘Octavius Buddle. No address. I have no idea who Mr. Buddle might be, but he is obviously the next intended victim. He must be warned.’
‘Against what?’ Emerson demanded. ‘A dead assassin?’
‘Assassins sometimes travel in gangs, Emerson.’
Emerson’s eyes opened very wide. ‘Peabody, where do you get these notions? Assassins do not travel in gangs. Furthermore, how do you plan to warn Mr. Buddle when you don’t know who he is or where he is?’
‘That does present a difficulty,’ I acknowledged. ‘I forgot to ask—did the putative assassin have a weapon on his person?’
‘He didn’t need one,’ Emerson said grimly. ‘Those hard hands of his could have held you underwater long enough. Your habits of cleanliness are no doubt admirable, my dear, but I sometimes think you spend too much time in bathtubs.’”
The publishers are coy about how much of Peters’ original text there was when Hess took over, but I didn’t notice any glaring seams in style. Ultimately, the book hangs together well, despite the difficulties inherent in a posthumous collaboration such as this. I think fans of the series will enjoy The Painted Queen as much as I did.
Elizabeth Peters (born Barbara Mertz in 1927) earned her PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago, well known for its anthropology and archaeology departments. In addition to the Amelia Peabody books, she authored several other series of lighthearted mysteries, often involving some fascinating artifact or legend from history. Joan Hess is well known as the writer of the Claire Malloy and Maggody mysteries, both set in Arkansas. The two became friends when Hess accompanied Peters on one of her trips to Egypt, and it even resulted in Hess’s Malloy novel Mummy Dearest. The famous Egyptologist Salima Ikram, often seen expounding on issues of archaeology on television documentaries, also advised on the completion of The Painted Queen.
The Painted Queen was published by HarperCollins in 2017 and is available now at Greenville Public Library. Enjoy!