Saturday, February 13, 2010

Back to the Future: Elizabeth Peters, Vicky Bliss, and Writer's Privileges

Sometimes I can be quite late in catching up with a good read. It can't be the fault of Amazon, which deluges me with the latest titles and even books that aren't yet in print. Anything that Amazon can link to me through past purchases, it tosses onto the carpet when I flick over to the site to pick up an item that isn't on hand in this rural segment of Vermont. (Don't ask how many times each week -- just know that I really do "buy local" before I buy online. Sometimes "local" extends for about a two-hour drive, as it will on a book jaunt we've got planned for next week.)

So I should have already been offered a chance to "pre-order" the next Amelia Peabody bundle of suspense: A RIVER IN THE SKY by Elizabeth Peters is scheduled to release on April 6. Yes! I'm always fascinated by the way that this author entwines Egyptian art and history with Victorian society and strong women.

But what actually pulled me into an Elizabeth Peters binge this winter was accidentally bringing home from the public library her 2008 volume, THE LAUGHTER OF DEAD KINGS, featuring art historian Vicky Bliss and her notorious lover, John Tregarth -- a.k.a. "retired" art thief Sir John Smythe. The novel erupts in a startling first chapter that features not only John's arrival (through the upstairs bedroom window and then down the staircase to where Vicky is tackling a craft project), but also word of John's nastily psychotic mother Jen, a knock at the door announcing Vicky's Egyptian friend-in-need Feisal, and the threatened arrival of Vicky and John's least best friend, the stuffy, wealthy, and highly manipulative Schmidt. With, but of course, his newest flame, a nasty spy named Suzi.

If that sound like a setup for multiple moments of confusion, laughter, and threat, you've got good ears. Complicating things further is the absence of a significant mummy -- one might almost say, THE significant mummy. Could John have resumed his life of crime, without quite filling in Vicky? How many times with Vicky and John come razor-close to death in the struggle to clear his name (if he's really in the clear)? All too soon, the underworld figures they are on the case -- and so do the powers of politics in the region, who need Vicky and John in the burgeoning crisis. When Ashraf gathers the team in his office, it's bad news to Vicky's way of thinking:
He took his time, carefully folding back the paper, slowly lifting the lid of the cardboard box it enclosed. Inside was another box, this one of wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. You could find boxes like that in every shop in the suk. It had a rather flimsy brass catch, which Ashraf unfastened. Ashraf moed like a slug, in slow motion, watching John, whose expression of courteous patience didn't change. The hinged lid was lifted, the cotton wool inside was removed. And there it was.

A mummy's hand.
Well, you know those kidnap situations where the villain sends back a finger? It's a lot easier to detach part of the anatomy when it's an entire mummy that's being held for ransom ...

Peters pulls off a great caper novel here, with marvelous twists of plot, plenty of moments to gasp or guffaw, and lashes of Egypt's best. It's a delicious way to pass a snowstorm or wait for signs of spring. I'm delighted I found the book.

But here I've rambled on about the suspense, the characters, the plot -- and missed entirely what drew me to want to write about this book at the start of the evening: namely, the author's foreword. Peters gives the best explanation I've seen of the author's privilege of resuming life with a character 14 years later in publishing time, but hardly at all later in the character's life. I recommend it for anyone who reads or writes fiction in separate volumes. In other words, grab this book for the entertainment of a good read. But also, if you're writing or reading multiple books by any author, check it out for the tradecraft, too. Considering that Peters is a Mystery Writers of America grandmaster, winner of a Lifetime Achievement award from Malice Domestic, and grandmaster of Bouchercon, I should have guessed in advance what I discovered -- this light-hearted but tough-minded explanation is a gem.

[PS: Yes, Elizabeth Peters is a pen name for Barbara G. Metz, who also writes as Barbara Michaels. Check out the friendly and well-organized web site:]

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