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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 Twenties, so far. Over this time, she and her husband have founded a 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:
- Their son, Walter "Ramses" Emerson, who appears in the second book as a Kid Detective which he remains until he's a Teen Genius (in both archeology and undercover work), going on to be a spy in WWI, then to marry Nefret Forth (see next) after a period as an Unlucky Childhood Friend, passing through a Will They or Won't They? to emerge as a Victorious Childhood Friend. He and Nefret are Mindlink Mates and form a second Battle Couple.
- Nefret Forth is the only child of an archeologist who died discovering a Lost World oasis where a remnant of ancient Egyptian civilization lingers. This was Peters' Shout-Out to the various lost worlds of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Nefret was adopted by the Emersons and went through a long time when she thought her relationship to Ramses was Like Brother and Sister, while Ramses pined in silence. Nefret is just as strong-willed and intelligent as her husband and in-laws, and rich and beautiful to boot. And a doctor.
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 "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 "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 the philanthropy she does. 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 Catch Phrase use, mostly from Amelia, who loves also aphorisms. Her favorites 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."
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, their 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 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 so far, with the dates when they are set, are:
- 1884-85, Crocodile on the Sandbank (1975)
- 1892-93, Curse of the Pharaohs (1981)
- 1894-95, The Mummy Case (1985)
- 1895-96, Lion in the Valley (1986)
- Summer 1896, Deeds of the Disturber (1988)
- 1897-98, The Last Camel Died at Noon (1991)
- 1898-99, The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog (1992)
- 1899-1900, The Hippopotamus Pool (1996)
- 1903-04, Seeing a Large Cat (1997)
- 1906-07, Valley of the Kings, The Ape Who Guards the Balance (1998)
- 1907-08, Guardian of the Horizon (2004, published out of sequence)
- Summer-Fall 1910, A River in the Sky (2010, published out of sequence)
- 1911-12, The Falcon at the Portal (1999)
- 1914-15, He Shall Thunder in the Sky (2000)
- 1915-16, Lord of the Silent (2001)
- 1916-17, The Golden One (2002)
- 1919-20, Children of the Storm (2003)
- 1922-23, The Serpent on the Crown (2005)
- 1922-23, Tomb of the Golden Bird (2006)
- 1912, The Painted Queen (2017)
Sadly, Barbara Mertz (the author behind the "Elizabeth Peters" pen name) passed away from cancer on August 8, 2013. The Painted Queen was published posthumously after being completed by mystery writer Joan Hess, with assistance from Egyptologist Salma Ikram.
- Action Mom: Amelia, as well as her daughter-in-law Nefret.
- Adventure Archaeologist: Both Amelia and Emerson, though in heavily subverted form. They despise the treasure-hunting kind of archaeologist.
- 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.
- 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.
- Badass Family: The Peabody-Emerson family, not forgetting the Egyptian in-laws.
- Badass Grandpa (and Grandma): Amelia and Emerson, by the later books.
- Battle Butler: Gargary. The rest of the staff is pretty handy in a fight too.
- Canon Welding: With Peters' Vicky Bliss series (one of the characters in that series is descended from one of Ramses and Nefret's children).
- 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.
- Not to mention Ramses, for almost ten years.
- 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.
- 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' adopted son Bertie).
- 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."
- 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.
- Emerson on one occasion dismissed these as nothing more than dreams, but the next words out of his mouth were asking if the dead friend looked well — that is, that he was enjoying his afterlife.
- Disappeared Dad: And husband. Sethos isn't very good at this kind of thing.
- Doomed by Canon: The benevolent conspiracy calling itself the "Sons of Abraham," in A River in the Sky. Their goal is to find and/or build common ground and understanding between Arabs and Jews to prevent conflict.
- Downer Ending: Not usually, but Falcon at the Portal did not end on a happy note.
- Drives Like Crazy: Amelia and the Professor. To be fair, cars were a novelty at the time, and neither ever had any formal driver's training, but Nefret tried to give Amelia a lesson — and later made excuses never to ride with her again. As for Emerson, his style of driving is basically "floor it and hit the horn a lot" (not a quote from the books, but accurate). When he's a passenger, he's likely to shout repeatedly (and with shocking profanity, if there's no woman present) for greater speed.
- 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!
- 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!"
- Flirty Stepsiblings: Ramses and Nefret.
- Friendly Enemy: After a certain point, Amelia and Sethos' relationship is mostly this. (Emerson isn't so complacent.)
- Genius Bruiser: Emerson, described by his wife as "Herculean" and also as "the greatest archeologist of this or any other age."
- Genre Savvy: By the second or third book, Abdullah is learning to be resigned to the fact that dead bodies (recently dead bodies, that is; murder victims) always show up around the Emersons' dig sites. A few books after that, and everyone has picked up his "Every year, another dead body" line.
- 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!"
- Grammar Nazi: Amelia has tendencies in this direction, especially toward the more-casual Emerson. She'll also often reprimand even mild profanity: "Language, Emerson."
- Happily Married: Amelia and Emerson.
- Heel Face Turn: Sethos.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Abdullah
- Hidden Depths: After a while, Amelia notices that The Spymaster Mr. "Smith" shows a few signs of a sense of humor, even when the joke is on him. There's also a scene at the end of the chronologically last book where he's discussing the schemers who're trying to start War for Fun and Profit; Emerson calls it "a damned depressing picture," and
"I find it so," said Smith; and I saw a trace of emotion flicker across that masklike face.
- 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 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.
- Ramses chokes a bit when his mother has the gall to claim "I would never venture to urge a course of action on another individual, particularly in affairs of the heart." Most of the readers probably do, too. It's amazing lightning doesn't strike her for a lie that barefaced.
- Lady of Adventure: Amelia.
- Love Epiphany: When Nefret finally realized how she felt about Ramses, the sound she made is described as half squeak, half sob.
- Loyal Animal Companion: Bastet, for Ramses. She's also pretty intelligent for a cat. The announcement of her death at the beginning of one book, after she'd been with the family for five or six, caused Emerson to have a case of Sand in My Eyes even while he tried to dismiss her as "only a cat, you know."
- 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.
- 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, 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). 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.
- 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."
- Narrative Profanity Filter: "Nefret pronounced a word of whose meaning I was entirely ignorant,..."
- Not Now, Kiddo: Happens to Ramses, particularly in Lion in the Valley.
- 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 marrying her, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Spirited Young Lady: Amelia (loosely; she appears to have been in her late twenties or even her early thirties when the series begins). Later on, Nefret.
- They Do: Ramses and Nefret, eventually.
- Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: Ramses and Nefret's children.
- Victorian London: The series starts in this period, but outlives it by quite a bit.
- When He Laughs: Ramses, as far as women are concerned. Even his mother was a bit stunned by it. There's a scene, after Nefret realized she loves him but while they're estranged, in which he laughs so hard he has to sit down; Amelia notices but doesn't recognize the significance that Nefret is totally focused on watching him.
- 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."
- She's reviewed — and praised — Discworld books under two names; as Peters and as another of her pen names, Barbara Michaels. Some of the books cite both reviews.