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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Painted Queen by Elizabeth Peters, Joan Hess

September 1, 2017

HarperCollins Publishers: New York
2017 (HC)

In 2013 mystery novel readers and Egyptologists around the globe mourned the passing of Barbara Mertz, who under the pen name of Elizabeth Peters, wrote some of the most cherished stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Without a doubt her most beloved creation was Amelia Peabody, the intrepid and thoroughly eccentric heroine of nineteen novels that followed her exploits and those of her family in the Egypt of the Victorian and Edwardian eras.  For years there had been rumors of an Amelia Peabody suspense novel left incomplete at the time of Elizabeth Peters’ death, but the fits and starts of publication dates left many fans doubting that the novel, if it truly ever existed, would see the Late of day.  Then, in late July of 2017, The Painted Queen, under the co-authorship of the late Elizabeth Peters and mystery novelist Joan Hess (author of the well-regarded Claire Malloy and Maggody Mysteries) hit the book stores!

Reading The Painted Queen was like meeting an old, long-absent friend for a good cup of coffee and a long chat.  While the original nineteen novels spanned the years 1884 to 1922, The Painted Queen takes place in 1912 (and is thus one of the “lost” journals of Amelia Peabody Emerson).

Radcliffe Emerson, otherwise referred to as “Emerson” by his wife Amelia (otherwise referred to as “Peabody” by her husband, is requested by Gaston Maspero, Director of the Service des Antiquities, in Cairo to assume control of an important excavation at Amarna, the royal capital of Akhenaten, the “heretic king” whose seventeen year reign ended with his death in 1136 B.C.  The dig had been directed by famed German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, who had returned to Germany for an extended period of time.  His understudy, Morgenstern, had assumed control of the dig, and because he was exhibiting some very strange behavior, thus putting the project at some risk, Maspero wished Emerson to step in.  An important element of the Amarna excavation was the discovery of the workshop of Thutmose, the official court sculptor of Akhenaten and Emerson, the most accomplished Egyptologist “of this or any other century,” according to Peabody, unearths the composite head of an elegant statue and wonders whether it might be the likeness of Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s queen.  Conventional archaeological history tells us that sometime in 1912, Ludwig  Borchardt unearthed the breathtakingly magnificent bust of Nefertiti at Amarna and may or may not have smuggled it off to Germany.  The Painted Queen, at long last, tells us the true tale of this iconic artifact, and the roles played by Emerson, Amelia Peabody and their son, the inimitable Ramses, in its discovery—and recovery!  While the hunt for one of the most fabled artifacts in the history should be enough for any heroine to deal with, the indomitable Amelia Peabody and her posse of relatives and companions take on traffickers in fake antiquities, a plot involving German aggression in advance of the Great War, and the murderous actions of the Godwin brothers—Judas, Cromwell, Absalom, Guy and Flitworthy—who are bent on killing all members of the Emerson family!

It was with some real sadness that I turned the last page of The Painted Queen, knowing there would never be another Amelia Peabody adventure, told in that rollicking yet slyly subtle tongue-in-cheek style of Elizabeth Peters.  But it is a worthy capstone to this treasured series.  Four trowels for The Painted Queen—more if it were allowed!