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Literature / Amelia Peabody

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A historical mystery series written by Elizabeth Peters.

Amelia Peabody and her husband Radcliffe Emerson are a Happily Married Battle Couple who are Victorian Egyptologists. Each is an Adventurer Archaeologist (subverted; they have plenty of adventures, but nothing but scorn for treasure-hunting-style archeology) and an Amateur Sleuth. They also exhibit the tropes Huge Guy, Tiny Girl, Slap-Slap-Kiss (they are sparring partners as well as passionate lovers), Mama Bear and Papa Wolf, Casual Danger Dialog, Parasol of Pain, and Literary Agent Hypothesis (the whole series is supposedly being extracted by an editor from Amelia's private journal and a "Manuscript H" giving a third-person account of the experiences of Ramses and occasionally Nefret; see below).


They also have a tendency to consider themselves above the law, although mostly this only means they don't bother to call the police while battling criminals: they're administering justice as they see it, so why waste time talking to the police? (There's also the problem that the British police won't bother about Egyptian matters and the Egyptian police are often incapable.) Amelia, in fact, is generally scornful of cops, ignoring the fact that police must follow rules of evidence she doesn't consider binding on her. She frequently says Scotland Yard would solve more cases if a woman ran it — not talking about getting both male and female perspectives, but about replacing the male way of thinking with the female.

The Amelia Peabody series starts in the Victorian Britain but runs through World War I and into The Roaring '20s, so far. Over this time, she and her husband have founded a Badass Family and Quirky Household, the Emersons, that is the core of a bi-ethnic (English/Egyptian) example of The Clan. In addition to Peabody and Emerson, the Emerson family includes:



Each of these four main characters has an Egyptian nickname, bestowed on them by the locals, a particular interest within Egyptology, and an edge of some kind that makes them a bit super-normal:

  • Amelia is "Sitt Hakim" ("Lady Doctor") (She is also called "Peabody" by her husband; she always calls him "Emerson." If he calls her Amelia, it means he's really angry with her.) Her favorite topic is pyramids. Her edge is the dreams of or from her dead friend Abdullah.

  • Emerson is "Abu Shitaim" ("Father of Curses"). earned by his short temper and talent with Arabic invective. His favorite topics are tombs and temples. His edge is sheer strength and even more endurance.

  • Ramses is "Akhu el-Efreet" ("Brother of Demons") (Of course, "Ramses" is already a nickname; his real name is "Walter.") His favorite topic is inscriptions and the study of the ancient Egyptian language. His edge is his extraordinarily sharp hearing and vision. "The Brother of Demons can hear a whisper across the Nile."

  • Nefret is "Nur Misur" ("Light of Egypt"), probably in tribute to her hair and her vibrancy. Her favorite topic is mummies, which chimes well with her medical degree. Her edge is a psychic link with Ramses that lets her know when he is in imminent danger; it also spills out into a general sympathy that lets her tame horses, dogs, and cats, feed sparrows from her hand at a cafe table, and may be another reason for her widespread popularity with the Egyptian poor.

There is quite a bit of Catchphrase use, mostly from Amelia, who also loves aphorisms. Her favorite catch phrases include "We must have a Council of War!" at least once a case, and frequent references to making or consulting "one of my little lists" of clues. She often has "the direst of forebodings" and the rest of the family sometimes use the phrase for their own misgivings, quoting her. "I suspected him from the start!" is another of her favorites — Ramses once remarked that this was meaningless because she suspected everyone. Perhaps the most often used is Amelia's claim, "I had, of course, considered that / thought of that / anticipated that" or the like. It runs neck-and-neck, though, with "another shirt ruined" (since Emerson and Ramses are both very hard on their clothes; in fact, there used to be a web-site for Amelia with that phrase as the title) and Abdullah's lament, "Every year, another dead body."

The main characters complicate their investigations for themselves by (1) sometimes competing to see who can solve it first, and (2) almost always keeping information from each other to protect the others from rushing into the danger that they themselves feel must be investigated. As a result, they spend a lot of time rescuing each other.

There are a great many repeating characters, including many historical archeologists. Among the important supporting characters are:

  • Sethos, Seth Emerson, who would be an Evil Uncle if he were actually evil; he is Emerson's bastard half-brother, starts the series as a professional tomb robber, gets a crush on Amelia, who reforms him, and goes on to become a British secret agent, all before he reveals the relationship to Peabody and Emerson, and who has a way of turning up unannounced, to drag in new plot complications.

  • Abdullah ibn Hassan al Wahhab, the foreman on the digs. He eventually dies defending Amelia, but continues to appear to her in dreams, the reality of which cannot be checked. His son Selim takes over from him eventually. His brother Daoud is a Gentle Giant. His grandson David is taken in by the younger Emersons, becomes a famed illustrator, and marries a niece of theirs. His daughter-in-law Fatima becomes the Emerson's housekeeper. Abdullah's family is the hook on which to hang issues of racism and imperialism, which the Emersons are fiercely against.

The Emersons, both female and male, are also fierce proponents of equal rights for women. Some of the stories touch on the early feminist movement in England, and Amelia and Nefret are always trying to improve the lot of Egyptian women.

The Emersons' career is intertwined in the real history of Egypt and Egyptian archeology. The latest books put them on the outskirts of Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

The Amelia Peabody books, with the dates when they are set, are:

  1. 1884-85, Crocodile on the Sandbank (1975)
  2. 1892-93, Curse of the Pharaohs (1981)
  3. 1894-95, The Mummy Case (1985)
  4. 1895-96, Lion in the Valley (1986)
  5. Summer 1896, Deeds of the Disturber (1988)
  6. 1897-98, The Last Camel Died at Noon (1991)
  7. 1898-99, The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog (1992)
  8. 1899-1900, The Hippopotamus Pool (1996)
  9. 1903-04, Seeing a Large Cat (1997)
  10. 1906-07, Valley of the Kings, The Ape Who Guards the Balance (1998)
  11. 1907-08, Guardian of the Horizon (2004, published out of sequence)
  12. Summer-Fall 1910, A River in the Sky (2010, published out of sequence)
  13. 1911-12, The Falcon at the Portal (1999)
  14. 1912, The Painted Queen (2017, published out of sequence)
  15. 1914-15, He Shall Thunder in the Sky (2000)
  16. 1915-16, Lord of the Silent (2001)
  17. 1916-17, The Golden One (2002)
  18. 1919-20, Children of the Storm (2003)
  19. 1922-23, The Serpent on the Crown (2005)
  20. 1922-23, Tomb of the Golden Bird (2006)

Tropes featured include:

  • Accidental Misnaming: A cab driver calls Ramses "Brother of Curses" in He Shall Thunder in the Sky.
  • Action Girl: Amelia and Nefret, before they graduated to Action Moms.
  • Action Hero: Emerson and Ramses. In the later novels, Ramses usually gets beaten up at least once a book.
  • Action Mom: Amelia, as well as her daughter-in-law Nefret.
  • Adventure Archaeologist: Both Amelia and Emerson, though in subverted form. They despise the treasure-hunting kind of archaeologist.
  • Adult Fear: In Justin(e) and her henchmen holding Miryam's son hostage to force her to work with them.
  • Affably Evil: Sethos lives and breathes this trope.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Amelia and Emerson, and later Ramses and Nefret.
  • Amnesiac Lover: This happens to Emerson at one point.
  • Animal Lover: Amelia is a downplayed version, at least by Victorian standards. One of her Beserk Buttons is blatant animal abuse, and she insists on inspecting and doctoring all animals acquired for their digs before they are put to work. One of Abdullah's Catch Phrases in the early years is a resigned, 'Yes, Sitt Hakim, the donkeys have been washed'. At one point, Ramses reminisces one one of his fondest childhood memories: Amelia calmly scrubbing a camel with a long-handled brush while it kicked and bellowed so violently that it took two of the expedition crew to hold it in place.
  • Apron Matron: Amelia's parasol is a weapon feared throughout Egypt (before her husband gave her a sword-cane version), and senior British officials cringe at the thought of her tongue-lashings. In one book, she reveals that she replaced all the steel 'bones' in her corset with custom made knives, including a couple that needed their own sheaths.
  • Badass in Distress: Most of the main cast take a turn at this, but Ramses is especially prone to it.
  • Badass Family: The Peabody-Emerson family, not forgetting the Egyptian in-laws.
  • Battle Butler: Gargary. The rest of the staff is pretty handy in a fight too.
  • The Berserker: Harm to her husband or son will turn prim, petite Amelia into one of these. Watch out for the parasol.
  • Be Careful What You Say: Evelyn states that she has so many children.
  • Beta Couple: Several - David and Lia, Cyrus and Catherine, Walter and Evelyn, Sethos and Margaret, Daoud and Kadija.
  • Canon Welding: With Peters' Vicky Bliss series. A fairly early book establishes Amelia as an historical figure, and it turns out that one of the characters in that series is descended from one of Ramses and Nefret's children - though we never find out which one.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Amelia's companion Evelyn and Emerson's brother Walter in Crocodile on the Sandbank. Amelia eventually gets so fed-up with both of them that she spits it out for Evelyn:
    Amelia: She loves someone else...The one she loves is a poor wretch who won't even declare himself.
    Walter: You cannot mean...
    Amelia: Yes, you fool. She loves you. I don't know why, but she does. Now go and claim her.
    • Not to mention Ramses, for fourteen years. Justified by his being about eight or nine years old when it starts.
  • Cats Are Mean: Nefret's cat, Horus, is a demon incarnate to everyone but Nefret and Sennia.
  • Cats Are Snarkers: The long line of Emerson cats all manage this without talking.
  • Child Prodigy: Ramses, to an insufferable degree. Funnily, Ramses comes to recognize this himself as an adult. Can't quite bring himself to apologize to his mother for this, though.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Amelia and Emerson intend Ramses and Nefret to be (adoptive) brother and sister, but Ramses never saw it that way. But he won't tell Nefret until he has some indication she feels the same. After a great deal of angst on his part, Nefret eventually comes around.
  • The Clan: The Peabody-Emersons, eventually. In the chronologically last book (so far), their friends the Vandergelt family become linked to them by marriage as well (David's cousin Jumana agrees to marry Cyrus' step-son Bertie).
  • Commuting on a Bus: Karl von Borg, Sethos
  • Covered in Mud: In The Curse of the Pharaohs, Amelia's son Ramses interrupts a tea party after having gone digging in the compost heap and getting covered in mud (among other things). Ramses is described as not so much leaving muddy footprints as having a stream of filth trailing behind him.
  • Cutlass Between the Teeth: Discussed; Amelia regrets that it's not actually possible.
    "That has always struck me as an impractical procedure," I said. "One would have to have extremely hard teeth and strong jaw muscles, and even then an involuntary movement might easily result in the loss of teeth and jaw."
  • Cyanide Pill: In Lion in the Valley, one of Sethos's men is captured by Amelia, and takes poison (prussic acid) rather than be questioned.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Amelia has had at least one dream-conversation with her deceased friend Abdullah in each novel since his death. They are cryptic enough that they do not interfere with fair play in the detection, but she believes them to be genuine.
  • Disappeared Dad: And husband. Sethos isn't very good at this kind of thing. Actually he's very good at the 'disappeared' part...
  • Disinherited Child: The Earl of Ellesmere disinherited his daughter for marrying an Italian, and later his granddaughter Evelyn when she fell for an Italian as well and ran off with him (not realizing he was a con artist). Later subverted in the latter case, as he changed his mind and hand-wrote a new will officially leaving everything to her.
  • Downer Ending: Not usually, but Falcon at the Portal did not end on a happy note.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Amelia
  • Dude, She's Like, in a Coma!: In Crocodile on a Sandbank, Amelia comes out of a swoon to feel herself being tenderly held and kissed by her not-yet-husband Emerson with whom she has a Slap-Slap-Kiss relationship going. Not only is she totally fine with it, she shams unconsciousness for a few more minutes to prolong the moment!
  • Everyone Can See It: From Abdullah to Tarek
  • Exact Words: All of the Emersons, especially Amelia, tend to use these rather than outright lies when dissembling (including to each other).
  • The Exotic Detective: The basis of the series.
  • Faking the Dead; Sethos. Twice.
    Emerson: "If he dies again I am going to kill him!"
  • Family Eye Resemblance: This is what allows Sennia to be passed off as Ramses' child.
  • Flirty Stepsiblings: Ramses and Nefret.
  • Foreshadowing: Nefret says that Sethos "treated her like an indulgent uncle" during "He Shall Thunder in the Sky." We find out later in the book that Sethos is Emerson's illegitimate half-brother
  • Friendly Enemy: After a certain point, Amelia and Sethos' relationship is mostly this. (Emerson isn't so complacent.)
  • Genius Bruiser: Emerson, frequently described by his wife both as "Herculean" and also as "the greatest archeologist of this or any other age."
  • Go-Go Enslavement: Amelia is forced to dress in a sexy harem costume by the Big Bad of Lion in the Valley. Of course she dons it over her 'combinations' (long underwear) meaning the effect is not quite as intended. Even so Emerson's first words to her are "Put some clothes on!"
  • Go to Your Room!: Ramses is often told this, with explicit instructions to stay there, because he will leave otherwise.
  • Happily Married: Amelia and Emerson. Evelyn and Walter. Eventually David and Lia, and Nefret and Ramses.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Sethos.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Nefret. When her hair isn't described as "golden," most characters seem to agree it's "red-gold."
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Abdullah. And Sethos twice!
  • Historical Domain Character: The Emersons have several friends who fit this class. Howard Carter, who found the tomb of Tutankhamun, appears a lot, and T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) shows up at least twice. Emerson has a particular dislike for fellow Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, possibly because Petrie is the Real Life model for Emerson and the fellow who in Real History developed many of the archaeological principles and techniques Amelia credits Emerson with devising.
  • Hypocritical Humor: At one point in The Last Camel Died at Noon, Amelia pats herself on the back for nagging her husband into a certain course of action. When it goes badly a few pages later, she notes that if he'd listened to her, he would never have taken that course. Apparently, she forgot to edit the relevant portion of her journal.
    • Emerson does this all the time too. You'll lose track of how many times he tells someone (especially Amelia) not to lose their temper, despite the fact that his own has earned him the nickname "Father of Curses" and everyone in Egypt is afraid to cross him.
  • Idiot Ball: Everyone at one time or another.
  • I Resemble That Remark!: ""I never raise my voice," Emerson bellowed. A ghostly echo came rolling back from the depths of the tomb, as if the king's spirit were objecting to being awakened."
  • It Makes Sense in Context
    Amelia: "Emerson, that villain, that remarkable, clever wretch has seduced our cat!"
  • Kid Detective: Ramses, in the earlier books.
  • Lady of Adventure: Amelia. Nefret and Margret Minton are, too, though not in Amelia's league.
  • Lamarck Was Right: Ramses inherits his talents at disguise and general sneakiness from his uncle Sethos. Let's face it, Amelia and Emerson would make a good army just by themselves, but sneakiness isn't exactly among their considerable talents.
    • Also, the character in the Vicky Bliss series who turns out to be descended from Ramses? Starts off as a master thief and antiquity smuggler, with a knack for disguise.
  • Love at First Sight: At one point, Ramses says outright that he had this for Nefret, regardless of the fact he was a child at the time.
  • Love at First Punch: It's unclear exactly when Sethos developed his crush on Amelia, but it's quite probable he grew fixated on her after one of his henchmen knocked Ramses into a wall and apparently seriously injured him, causing her to subsequently go utterly berserk, beat up the henchmen and stab Sethos with her parasol.
  • Love Epiphany: When Nefret finally realized how she felt about Ramses, the sound she made is described as half squeak, half sob.
  • Love Makes You Dumb: When Sethos reveals his adoration for Amelia, he lists all the things he's done throughout the novel in order to try and win her regard. They are, to a one, silly, convoluted or both.
  • Loyal Animal Companion: The Cat Bastet note , for Ramses. She's also pretty intelligent for a cat. To the extent that Ramses has a dream of her the night she dies (he's away at the time) which is implied to be her personal farewell to him after death. But then, she is an Egyptian cat. Her grandson, Horus, becomes this to Nefret and Sennia.
  • Master of Disguise: Sethos and Ramses both. Ramses, in fact, developed his own skill at disguise while still a young boy, after stealing one of Sethos' rather comprehensive makeup kits; for a while before puberty he was in the habit of disguising himself so convincingly as a girl that the Emersons' servants thought they were being haunted by a child's ghost. In one book, Sethos spends most the plot hanging out with Ameilia, disguised as her and Emerson's good friend Cyrus Vandergelt, and she can't tell the difference.
  • Mighty Whitey: Both used and subverted. Amelia and her husband, son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren are all white, and regarded with awe, admiration, and dread by the Egyptians they work with, however, this is mostly for various talents, skills, or shenanigans rather than being white; but one of the causes they champion is equal rights for Egyptians, and they cultivate some impressive Egyptian sidekicks (though none in their own league), several of which become family by marriage. In The Last Camel Died at Noon, Amelia and family visit a Lost World, where Amelia is irritated to discover that the heroic native prince believes in the Mighty Whitey trope.
  • Mindlink Mates: Ramses and Nefret have a one-way link, whereby Nefret knows when Ramses is in imminent danger (which is most of the time).
  • Mr. Smith: A recurring character is a British spymaster who often goes by "Smith", partly because spies use pseudonyms and partly because it's so much easier than coping with his real name of "the Honorable Algernon Bracegirdle-Boisdragon."
  • Not Now, Kiddo: Happens to Ramses, particularly in Lion in the Valley.
  • Now or Never Kiss: Realizing he could well die that night Emerson refused to go off without kissing Amelia once, when she's conscious, even at the risk of living to face the consequences - which turn out to be a long and happy marriage.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Nobody ever calls Ramses "Walter".
  • Papa Wolf: Emerson. Shades into Overprotective Dad with regard to Nefret sometimes; not so much about sex as about shielding her from the world's ugliness. He'll say she shouldn't be permitted to examine a gruesome corpse, ignoring the fact that she's a fully trained doctor and would politely and lovingly tell him where to stuff his objections. At least once after she and Ramses married, Ramses got a bit irritated by Emerson's attitude effectively implying that Ramses didn't do a proper job of looking after her; he was rather maliciously amused when Emerson became embarrassed to realize Nefret was taking a bath in the next room.
  • Passed-Over Inheritance:
    • Amelia inherited her father's full estate, since she was the only one who shared his interest in ancient history. Her six older brothers, who were all successful merchants and professional men, were not amused to find out they'd missed out on half a million pounds (having not realized that their father was actually wealthy), and multiple attempts were made to claim the sum for themselves, though Amelia and her father's lawyer stopped all of them.
    • Not done intentionally by the Earl of Ellesmere (at least, not at first), but effectively when his son died; his title had to go to the closest male heir (his grandson by his eldest and disinherited daughter) by law, preventing his granddaughter Evelyn from getting everything. He later disinherited her entirely when she fell for an Italian, who turned out to be a con artist. At least, for a while. He later changed his mind and wrote a new will, giving her everything, before dying.
  • Put on a Bus: Percy Emerson, the Frasers, Mary and Karl von Borg.
  • Raised by Grandparents: Evelyn was raised by her grandfather, as she explains in book 1, her parents having died when she was a baby.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: Unsurprisingly, considering the setting, some form of this is always used by someone, protagonists included.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Ramses does this a lot as a child; he eventually grows out of it. Alas, his son inherits it.
  • Shout-Out: To Sherlock Holmes — the second book has characters belonging to a different branch of the Baskerville family, and someone under the pseudonym of Milverton, as well as a direct reference to Holmes, while book four has Amelia meet a detective named Tobias Gregson who's not actually either of those things. There are also references to H. Rider Haggard's stories, in addition to the Homage mentioned above involving Nefret's backstory.
    • Elizabeth Peters is a Discworld fan. One of the World War I-era stories had Sethos pretending to be a German agent reporting to a "von Überwald."
  • Shown Their Work: The Egyptology and history of archeology is solid, because Elizabeth Peters (IRL Barbara Mertz) is an Egyptologist and writes non-fiction under her real name.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Amelia and Nefret and to a lesser extent Evelyn. Literally in the case of their parasols.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Percy does this to Ramses
  • Tempting Fate: In "Falcon at the Portal" Nefret asks Lia in a letter, "What could Percy do to hurt Ramses?" They find out very quickly.
  • The Bus Came Back: The Frasers reappear in "Seeing A Large Cat" and Percy reappears in "The Falcon at the Portal".
  • They Do: Ramses and Nefret, eventually.
  • Title Drop: In several of the novels.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Amelia and Evelyn in the first book. By the time Evelyn re-appears as a major character, it's obvious they did learn from each other, - for instance, Amelia, who was utterly uninterested in all but the most utilitarian clothes at the beginning now can talk fashion with the best of them, and Evelyn is thrilled about wearing bloomers and bicycle dresses.
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: Ramses and Nefret's children, at least until the last book when it is revealed that Nefret is pregnant with a girl.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: As noted in Historical Domain Character, Emerson and Peabody clearly are versions of Real Life Flinders Petrie and his friend and patron Amelia Edwards, embellished up to 11 and married to each other.
  • Victorian London: The series starts in this period, but outlives it by quite a bit.
  • Villainous Crush: In Lion on the Sandbank, Amelia is oblivious to the fact that the Master Criminal, aka Sethos, appears to be courting her. Not even when he sends her flowers. Emerson of course figures it out, and grows incredibly jealous and paranoid as a result.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: Amelia knows Emerson's really angry at her when he calls her "Amelia" rather than the usual "Peabody".
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Violet Peabody is only seen in "Deeds of the Disturber".
  • Wouldn't Hit a Girl: Emerson and Sethos.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: Emerson for all his large physique, short temper and boisterousness, would never harm - or allow any harm to come to - a child, his or anyone else's.


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