Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Egyptological mystery

The Jackal's Head, Elizabeth Peters

As I've mentioned before, I really enjoy Elizabeth Peters' books, especially the series with Egyptologists Amelia Peabody Emerson and her husband Radcliffe (not that anyone calls him that).  The stories in that series run from the late 1880s up into the 1920s.  When I sat down with The Jackal's Head, I had no idea what it was about, other than that it was set in Egypt.  It was quite a surprise, and a pleasant one, to find it very much like an Amelia story, one set in the late 20th century.  Published in 1968, this book does not feel dated at all, but it does feel like a precursor to the later books, as if Peters took the elements of the story and the characters and put them together in a new way for the first Amelia book, Crocodile on the Sandbank (published in 1975).

As The Jackal's Head opens, Althea (Tommy) Tomlinson arrives in Luxor with Dee Bloch, a 17-year-old girl meeting her businessman father in Egypt.  Tommy grew up in Luxor with her widowed father Jake, an archaeologist on the staff of the Luxor Institute.  When she was 16, Jake lost his position after accusations that he tried to sell a faked antique.  Father and daughter returned to America, and Jake died soon after in a car wreck that might have been suicide.  In the ten years since his death, Tommy has become obsessed with clearing his name.  Then one day, she gets a letter from the Egyptian headman of the workers, now an old man, with a cryptic message that he has information about her father for her.  Soon she is on the hunt not just for evidence to clear her father, but also for a previously-undiscovered tomb, even richer and more important than Tutankhamen's, joined by Jake's former colleagues at the Institute and the Blochs.

Anyone familiar with the Amelia books will recognize in this cast of characters a proto-Emerson (complete with pipe and roar), a proto-Abdullah, and a proto-Cyrus (complete with twang).  Tommy herself is not an Amelia prototype, though there are similarities.  Both are strong, determined characters.  In an extended section, Tommy rescues herself from imprisonment by the villains.  Lacking Amelia's knowledge and resources (especially that famous tool belt), she nevertheless analyzes her position and works her way to a solution.  Like Amelia she also finds herself in love over the course of her adventures, and the relationship that ensues will be a partnership:
"He was paying me an unusual but immense compliment by treating me as a partner, engaged in a job that was as meaningful to me as it was to him.  In that seemingly casual assumption I could dimly see the seeds of something too important to risk."
Amelia expected to be treated as an equal partner, in marriage and in Egyptology.  That is a new idea for Tommy, but it promises a pretty happy ending, and perhaps still an unusual one in 1968.

This was a fun read, not just because of the Emerson echoes, and it reminds me how much I would love to travel to Egypt.  In the meantime, there is an "King Tut" exhibit just opening here in Houston, and I can play Egyptologist there.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!