Everyone’s favorite know-it-all Victorian archeologist, Amelia Peabody, is back for her 14th mystery, and while I rejoice to see her again, I must admit that The Golden One isn’t one of the strongest entries in the series. The novel’s first half is annoyingly slow, and the second half, while much more eventful, takes off in a totally different and disjointed direction. However, it is always rewarding to pass the time with Amelia and her husband Radcliffe Emerson, who, of course, is “the most distinguished Egyptologist of this or any other era.”
As 1917 dawns, the Emersons are once again in Egypt and planning to stay indefinitely because of German torpedoes prowling the seas. All is well with Amelia and her beloved Emerson, and the marriage of their son Ramses and their foster-daughter Nefret is proving to be a strong one. The only fly in the ointment is Amelia’s not-so-subtle hints that she wouldn’t mind becoming a grandmother in the near future. Once the Emersons arrive in Luxor, they hear rumors about a magnificent, newly discovered royal tomb that has already been ransacked by thieves. While trying to locate the hidden treasure, they are thwarted by numerous petty but dangerous attacks. Evidence points to the involvement of Jamil, the spoiled, renegade kinsman of the Emersons’ foreman Selim. But just as events heat up in Luxor, Ramses is contacted by the British Intelligence, who want him to utilize his espionage skills in the Palestinian city of Gaza.
Ramses has tried to put his days as a spy behind him for Nefret’s sake, but the Intelligence officer makes him an offer he can’t refuse. His uncle, Emerson’s half-brother and one-time arch-nemesis Sethos, has been spotted in Gaza. Although he had been spying for the British as well, Sethos is now suspected of turning traitor and selling secrets to the Turks. Ramses reluctantly agrees to accept the assignment, but Amelia, Emerson and Nefret refuse to let him face this danger by himself, so they embark on their own journey to Gaza. If the trip from Cairo to Palestine in a stolen motorcar doesn’t kill them, the Turks probably will.
The first half of the novel did not hold my interest. As Amelia’s late friend Abdullah used to say, “Every year, another dead body,” and it does seem like we’ve been here many times before. Only this time, we don’t even have the pleasure of watching Amelia match wits with the notorious Sethos. The leader of the tomb robbers is a “miserable coward” (as Emerson points out grumpily), so it’s difficult to become engaged in the struggle.
Then after the first 200 pages, the scene shifts abruptly to Ramses’ undercover assignment. Here the novel really picks up steam. The suspense of watching Ramses put his life in jeopardy to discover the truth about his uncle is matched only by the humor of watching Emerson revel in his disguise as a wealthy Egyptian merchant with a “borrowed” motorcar and two wives (Amelia and Nefret). It’s a welcome change of pace to see the Emersons in a new location, as well as a fascinating glimpse into the Holy Land’s role during World War I.
The Golden One is also less compelling than some of its predecessors because there are fewer unresolved relationships. Ramses and Nefret are a well-established couple by now, and of course sexagenarian lovebirds Amelia and Emerson are as affectionate as ever. However, there is now plenty of room for the development of additional characters. Jumana, the young Egyptian girl first introduced in Lord of the Silent, has a major role to play, although it’s unclear yet if she will live up to her female mentors, Nefret and Amelia. Sennia, the young girl who lives with the Emersons, is cute without being too cloying. And Amelia’s old American friend and colleague, Cyrus Vandergelt, features prominently in a way that allows Emerson to demonstrate his consummate nobility and generosity. Finally, the next villain may pose more of a challenge to our intrepid heroine than the cowardly Jamil did; the novel’s final sentences hint that the Emersons are about to face a new adversary with a personal grudge against Amelia.
Frankly, I am starting to worry that the series is in danger of burnout. While the first seven Amelia Peabody novels were released over a 17 year period, the last seven have been released on an annual basis. Surely that has to tax the creative powers of even such a singular talent as Elizabeth Peters. Maybe she owes it to herself to take a break, write a new Vicky Bliss mystery, and then come back to Amelia when the ideas are fresher. Of course I would miss the old broad, but I know that in the interim Amelia, armed with her trusty parasol, can take perfectly good care of herself.