The Laughter of Dead Kings

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Sunday, March 01, 2009
by Elizabeth Peters (2008)

King Tut is missing! The manner of his disappearance has fingers pointing at John Smythe, Vicky Bliss's formerly crooked now straight (OR IS HE?) antiquities-slinging boyfriend. Will justice prevail? Adventures be experienced? Mistakes be made? Treasures be found? Laughs be had? (read it and see, yes, yes, yes and yes.)

I have been reading Vicky Bliss novels for ages; Elizabeth Peters occupies a particular, protected place in my heart. I came across her books at an impressionable age and was DELIGHTED to find out that there were many linear feet of books to catch up on. She's incredibly prolific, and I greedily read all I could find: the Amelia Peabody books are full of Victorian/Edwardian parasol-thwapping Egyptian adventure (although I gave up on those somewhat early on because I grew weary of a particular character -- I'll go back to them someday); the books she wrote under the pen name Barbara Michaels are all vaguely or directly spooky in the vein of Mary Stewart's novels of romantic suspense; the stand-alone capers are great fun -- young women stumbling into international adventures and romances, usually involving danger, legends, artifacts, charm and bickering.

As much as I liked these, what really hit my sweet spot were the Vicky Bliss stories. Vicky was not just smart, but a smartass; beautiful, but vulnerable and awkward (not just because she's six feet tall); expert in her field (art history, medieval jewelry in particular) but not expert in everything. On top of that, she lived in Munich, worked in a museum and had many caper-type adventures all over Europe, and so on. The character is smart but does all the stupid things smart people are prone to doing (usually by making dumb mistakes she assumes she's too smart to make), yet she manages to figure things out in the end. Mostly. She's no lone ranger -- she has friends, a community. The two biggest recurring characters would be her boss, Schmidt (oh, how I love him), and her an on again (sneaking in her window) off again (on the lam) boyfriend John, a charming but slippery art thief/dealer. Actions have consequences in the series, and although you could conceivably read them in any order, there's a lot of enjoyable carryover from one book to the next.

These novels came out at a fairly regular pace for a while, then it was All Amelia, All The Time. (There are 6 Vicky novels compared to 18 Amelia novels.) Fans of the series thought we weren't going to get any more, but now we have a new one! I love how this starts with a word from the author that though she wrote the first Vicky novel in 1973, the series occupies the "current now." I was grateful she made this distinction, because it lets a person dispense with those kinds of meta questions right away -- but it was clear that even though the characters were in the current now, maybe the author wasn't. (The current now also means that some of the earlier books are pretty dated.) The last Vicky book came out in the early 90s, when it was still conceivable that someone could be having an adventure of this type without wifi. Now... all the characters do things like check email and google and use a cell phone, but they all approach it like a cranky writer who found it easier to plot and plan when you couldn't just CALL SOMEONE and clear up any questions. They barely refrain from "back in my day we carved hieroglyphs on tablets, and we liked it!" proclamations. Ha! I actually kind of love this, but if she writes another one I hope she gets it straightened out. I would at least like to feel that a competent, with it, "current now" girl like Vicky would not just grudgingly use technology, but use it adeptly to her advantage.

That being said, if it weren't for my already considerable affection for the series, I'm not sure how I would rate this novel. How would I feel about it if I weren't so pathetically grateful to visit with my old friends again? As far as favorite V. Bliss stories go, I think this one slots somewhere in the middle. I had fun reading it, but it didn't have the pull for me that some of the other novels in the series did. I still had a really good time, though.

Here's a list of the previous five books, with the year of original publication and the location of the adventure:

Borrower of the Night (1973): Vicky's first book, which sets up the series. Haunted German castle with spooky candelabra door slamming "what are you doing here?" bedroom farce hijinx.

Street of the Five Moons (1978): kidnapping, scooters and other Roman adventures. We meet John, who is a slippery liar who lies, yet he sometimes does the right thing, if for his own weird reasons. (I always picture him looking and talking somewhat like Princess Bride era Cary Elwes.)

Silhouette in Scarlet (1983): Stockholm, intrigue, ruthless criminals, 5th century treasure, lonely island, DEADLY PAPER SILHOUETTES. (yes, I said deadly paper silhouettes.)

Trojan Gold (1987): the promise of Agamemnon's gold and a dangerous alpine ski chalet vacation! (!!!) (big adventure/romance in this one.)

Night Train to Memphis (1994): Country music (the music of pain!), misunderstandings, Nile cruises, pyramids, full moons, camels, mothers in law.
4 comments on "The Laughter of Dead Kings"
  1. Hee! I love Elizabeth Peters. I recently reread the first Amelia Peabody, thinking maybe I'd be over the "tiresome" and reread them all starting from the beginning then catch up on the zillion new ones that came out since I stopped reading her sometime in the mid 90's but I'm not so sure now. I think some of her older stuff just has kind of a dated, over the top kind of 70's feminist thing going on that feels too pushy or something. I'm not sure but I know that I still LOVE her other stuff (especially the spooky Mary Stewart-ish ones)!

  2. I remember that first one as being really, really funny -- maybe I shouldn't re-read it!

    I totally agree about her 70s feminism being at times overwhelming and distracting. the mary stewart stuff (written by mary stewart!) in the FIFTIES seems less dated in a lot of ways.

    Her big Amelia writing boom seems to have taken place largely over the nineties and early aughties (about one a year!) -- maybe they're less distracting..?

    But I still love me some Elizabeth Peters! Have you read this one yet?

  3. Good point. There was a lot that I still liked about the first one, there were just moments where Amelia got a little tedious and I was glad she was a character in a book and not a real person I had to deal with. I should go back and look at some of the later ones. I pretty much gave up on them after that stupid Ramses kid came into the picture. I know he was supposed to be cute and precocious, but I just found him ANNOYING!

  4. Rameses was also my point of I CAN ENDURE NO LONGER!

    I want to go back and look at her stand alones -- as I recall, there were some which were great fun, some which were okay, and some which made me all stompy and irritated. (same for the Barbara Michaels, now that I think of it.)

    Hey -- I bet you know! Did she do any series under the BM name? The closest I can remember was one character who came back with about 15 books after her first appearance, who had changed her name and a bunch of other stuff that seemed crazy at the time.


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