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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Jackal’s Head by Elizabeth Peters

October 1, 2007

Avon Books: New York
2002 (PB); Original publication, 1968

Before there was Amelia Peabody, there was Althea Tomlinson; before there was Radcliffe Emerson, there was John McIntyre.  And before there was Crocodile on the Sandbank, published in 1975, there was The Jackal’s Head, published in 1968.  The similarities extend to the plot as well as the characters in that the intrepid adventurers travel to mid 20th Century Luxor and the Valley of the Kings to seek the lost tomb of Queen Nefertiti—and perhaps even that of her husband, the “heretic king,” Akhenaton.  The intrepid adventurers include Althea, a headstrong young woman who early on figuratively butts heads with handsome, muscular and bombastic archaeologist John McIntyre.  Shades of Peabody and Emerson, you say?

But there are significant differences in these two similar tales.  The action takes place, as noted, in modern day Egypt as opposed to late Victorian times.  Althea Tomlinson (aka Tommy) is the daughter of the late Jake Tomlinson, a swashbuckling, ne’er-do-well archaeologist who died, perhaps by his own hand, in disgrace for trading in fake Egyptian artifacts.  Tommy has been summoned to Egypt in a mysterious letter from her father’s old reis, or headman of her late father’s excavation crew.  Abdelal’s letter hints at revelations that might clear her father of the accusations made against him, and Tommy, far from being wealthy, is fortuitously able to secure a job as travel companion to the teenage daughter of a very wealthy, Sam Block, an American collector of Egyptian antiquities.  The grand tour includes Luxor, the site of her father’s fall from grace and the home of the elderly reis.  In so doing, she must inevitably meet up once again with the hero of her adolescent dreams, John McIntyre, her father’s partner—and the man who blew the whistle on Jake Tomlinson’s fake artifact racket!

With emotions ratcheted up to fever pitch, events suddenly turn deadly when the adult son of Abdelal is seriously injured under mysterious circumstances in the Valley of the Kings.  His father had died under similarly sinister circumstances prior to Tommy’s arrival in Egypt and the son had hinted at knowledge of his father’s secret.  It becomes apparent that there is more than just the possible vindication of Jake Tomlinson at hand, but the very real possibility of the existence of a here-to-for unknown (to the world of archaeology, at least) royal tomb—perhaps the tomb of Nefertiti and Akhenaton!  It is also apparent that there are shadowy figures (perhaps the chief of whom is John McIntyre himself) who will stop at nothing—including killing Tommy—to secure the royal treasures for themselves.

This is an entertaining read for several reasons—the suspense, the romance (for this is an Elizabeth Peters romance novel, after all) and the foreshadowing of the wonderful Amelia Peabody series waiting in the wings.  The Jackal’s Head is almost totally lacking in humor, one of the great strengths of the Peabody series, but Elizabeth Peters already showed a wonderful talent for evoking a time and place—in this case, 1960s Luxor, which was then a smaller, sleepier version of its present bustling, hyper-tourism-driven persona.

Two trowels for this early Peters effort.