When you’re confronted with a mystery involving pharaohs, ancient curses, or tomb raiders—who are you going to call? Amelia Peabody, the 19th century sleuth-slash-Egyptologist who is always ahead of her time.
Amelia is the brainchild of author Elizabeth Peters, née Barbara Mertz, who shared her heroine's knowledge of Egyptian history, language, and culture. With twenty books covering a whopping 39 years in a Amelia's life, we see the character solve countless cases, outsmart nefarious enemies, and buck against the patriarchy without batting an eye. But amidst the danger and high-stakes expeditions are the heartwarming (and often hilarious) stories of romance, friendship, and family—from Amelia's marriage to scholar Radcliffe Emerson to raising their son, Ramses. The series' charm lies in this combination of domestic drama and wild adventure, suspense and dry humor.
Deeds of the Disturber is a rare entrant in the Peabody mysteries, as it's the only book set entirely in England. Wanting to recover from months of excavating pyramids and thwarting rivals on the banks of the Nile, the Emerson family embarks on their annual summer retreat. Naturally, nothing goes as planned. When journalist Kevin O'Connell falsely publicizes that Amelia and Radcliffe will investigate the strange happenings at the British Museum, the couple's peaceful, work-free holiday is thrown to the wayside.
In the excerpt below, Amelia meets Kevin at a public house to reiterate her disinterest in the case. But her glimpse of a suspicious, ghostly figure starts to raise some doubt: Is a human criminal at work, or is there some truth to the rumors of an evil cursed mummy?
Read on for an excerpt from The Deeds of the Disturber, and then download the book.
“You are late, Mrs. E. Did you have trouble following my instructions?”
“Not at all, though they certainly might have been more explicit. However, I would not have troubled myself to follow them had I not been seriously annoyed with you. My only reason for being here is to demand an apology and a retraction for the things you have been saying about us in your wretched newspaper.”
“But I said only the most complimentary things about you and Mr. Emerson,” O’Connell protested.
“You implied I was an unfit mother.”
“’Twas no such thing! My exact words were, ‘She is the most affectionate of parents—’”
“‘Which makes her inability to prevent the lad from engaging in hair-raising adventures all the more astonishing.’” O’Connell met my stern gaze with eyes as blue, as limpid, and as serene as the lakes of Eire. “Well,” I said after a moment, “perhaps, after all, the statement is not entirely inaccurate. But what on earth was in your reputed brain, Kevin, to say Professor Emerson and I had consented to solve the mystery of the malignant mummy? That is a flat-out fabrication.”
“I said no such thing. I said—”
“I have not the time to exchange quibbles with you,” I said sternly. “I slipped out of the house without Emerson’s knowledge; if he misses me he will raise a hullaballoo.”
A shudder ran through Kevin’s wiry frame. “A very descriptive word, Mrs. E.”
The young person shuffled up, carrying a tray and a damp cloth. The cloth was not very clean, but the energy with which she swabbed the table indicated a willingness to please, and so I forbore to comment, only pointing out a few spots she had missed. Kevin had already seized his glass and consumed a considerable amount of the contents. He ordered another of the same, and I remarked in the kindliest possible fashion, “Young woman, that is a very nice frock, but with so much of your chest exposed, you run the risk of catching a severe cold. Have you no scarf or shawl?”
The girl shook her head dumbly. “Take mine, then,” I said, removing it from about my neck. It was a nice, thick wool plaid. “There. No, wrap it closely—so—that is much better. Now run along and get this gentleman his—what was it, Mr. O’Connell? Stout? A curious name for a beverage.”
But O’Connell’s arms were on the table and his head rested on his arms, and his shoulders were shaking. In response to my inquiries he assured me he was quite all right, though his face was almost as red as his hair and his lips were quivering.
“Now,” I said, sipping my whiskey, “what were we talking about?”
O’Connell shook his head. “I have not the slightest idea. Conversation with you has a strange effect on my brain, Mrs. Emerson.”
“Many people find it difficult to follow my mental processes,” I admitted. “But really, Kevin, your profession demands quick thinking, flexibility, concentration. Especially the latter. You must learn to concentrate.
“We were discussing your statement that Professor Emerson and I had consented to investigate the case of the curse.”
“I did not say you had consented. I said you would be consulted.”
“By whom? The Daily Yell?”
“Would that ’twere true,” Kevin exclaimed, pressing his hand to his heart in an outrageous parody of rapture. “My editors would pay any sum—any reasonable sum, that is—to retain you and the professor as consultants. Dare I hope—”
“No, you may not. Not only would it be beneath our dignity to have our names associated in a professional capacity with a newspaper—especially a disgusting example of libelous trash like the Daily Yell—but there is absolutely nothing to consult about. We are not detectives, Mr. O’Connell. We are scholars!”
“But you solved the Baskerville murder—”
“That was another matter altogether. We were called into that case as Egyptologists, to carry on the work begun by Lord Baskerville, whose mysterious death was followed by other incidents of a desperate and dangerous and distracting character. This case is quite different. It is a wisp, a fiction, concocted by Mr. Kevin O’Connell.”
“Now, indeed, ma’am, you wrong me. I am not the guilty party. Will you condescend to let me explain?”
“I have been waiting for you to do so.”
Kevin tugged at his fiery locks. “It was not I who broke the story. It was—someone else. Such a sensation was aroused that my editors felt we had to follow it up. Since I am regarded as something of an authority on ancient Egypt and supernatural curses … I couldn’t refuse, Mrs. E., without risking the loss of my position. What was I to do?”
“Hmmm,” I said thoughtfully. “The rival to whom you refer is the M. M. Minton of the Morning Mirror? I recall seeing the name on several stories, and wondering that the Mirror would stoop to such sensationalism. You weave a touching tale, Mr. O’Connell, but the fact remains that you have exploited your acquaintance with me in a contemptible manner.”
“But you are my greatest asset,” O’Connell explained guilelessly. “My acquaintance—dare I say friendship? No, perhaps not … My acquaintance, then, with you and the professor is the only advantage I have over rival journalists. It was my personal connection with the Baskerville case that made my reputation—and yours, insofar as the reading public is concerned. You and the professor are news, Mrs. E. People are fascinated by archaeology and archaeologists. Add to that your—how shall I put it?—your panache, your disregard for convention, your remarkable talent for criminal investigation—”
“I prefer the term ‘panache,’” I interrupted. “I cannot explain why Emerson and I are so often involved with violent crime; I am inclined to attribute it to a certain frame of mind, an awareness of suspicious circumstances that elude persons of duller wit.”
“No doubt that is the case,” Kevin said, nodding seriously. “So you understand why I was forced to mention your names.”
“To understand all is not to forgive all,” I replied. “This must cease, Mr. O’Connell. Our names must never again appear in your periodical.”
“But I was hoping for an interview,” O’Connell exclaimed. “The usual interview, concerning your archaeological excavations this past season.”
His soft blue orbs met mine with a look so open, that a person unacquainted with him would instantly have offered him her confidence. I smiled ironically. “You must take me for a fool, Kevin. We read your effusions on the Fraser case [from the previous book, Lion in the Valley]. Emerson raged for days. I feared for his health.”
“I got my information from Mrs. Fraser,” Kevin exclaimed. “The effusions, as you call them, were direct quotations from the young lady and her husband.”
It was difficult for me to be angry with him, since I secretly agreed. Enid Fraser, nee Debenham, had spoken no more than the truth, and the word “effusions” was Emerson’s, not mine.
Watching me shrewdly, O’Connell went on, “She and the others whom you have rescued from death and disgrace have sung your praises to the world. And why not? How seldom are courage and kindness given the recognition they deserve! You are an inspiration to the entire British nation, Mrs. E.”
“Hmmm. Well. Since you put it that way …”
“Risking your life—and a commodity more precious than life—in the defense of the innocent,” Kevin went on enthusiastically. “How the professor must have suffered—what anguish he must have endured—fearing that even your indomitable spirit and physical courage must falter before that desperate villain … What were your feelings, Mrs. E.?”
I had been nodding and smiling like an idiot. Then the sense of what he was saying penetrated, and I emitted a cry that made him cringe away and raise his arms in a posture of defense. “Curse you, Kevin—how dare you insinuate … Who told you? There is no truth whatever in … Wait till I speak with Enid. I will—”
“Calm yourself, Mrs. Amelia,” Kevin begged. “Mrs. Fraser did not betray your confidence; indeed, she absolutely denied the story after her husband (he is not the most intelligent of men, is he?) let something slip. She threatened me with the direst consequences if I printed a word.”
“Her threats will pale, I assure you, in comparison to Emerson’s,” I informed him. “If the slightest hint of …”
I did not finish the sentence; there was no need. Kevin’s countenance had paled visibly. With a sincerity I could not doubt, he exclaimed, “Sure, an’ don’t you think I was aware of that? My high regard for you, Mrs. Emerson, would prevent me from besmirching your reputation. Besides, my editor told me it would be actionable.”
This last remark was more convincing than his claim of concern for my reputation; adding to it his terror of Emerson (a terror which, in this case, was well founded), I thought I could count on his silence. “Very well,” I said, finishing my whiskey and looking about, in vain, for anything resembling a serviette. “I cannot dally, Mr. O’Connell. It is quite dark and Emerson will be looking for me. I leave you to pay the tab, since it was your invitation.”
He insisted on walking me back to the house, and although I felt no trepidation—after some of the areas through which I have walked after dark, London held no fears for me—I acceded to his request. As we approached the door the young woman sidled up to me and offered me my scarf. I rearranged it around her neck, tucking the ends in securely, and told her to keep it, as I had others.
I was glad of Kevin’s company, if only because my hold of his arm kept me from slipping. The mixture of mud, water, and various slimy substances underfoot made walking treacherous. The fog had closed in, dimming the gaslights to ghostly globes of sickly yellow-gray and distorting monstrously the forms of passersby. Yet there was a certain grisly charm in the scene, and I was moved to remark that dear old London need not yield even to the slums of Cairo in sinister and malodorous fascination. Kevin’s only response was to tighten his grip and hurry me forward.
At the spot where York Street debouched into the square, he stopped and announced his intention of leaving me. “You will be all right now, Mrs. E.”
“I have never been anything other than all right, “Mr. O. Thank you for entertaining me at the public house; it was a most interesting experience. But don’t forget what I told you.”
“You will not use my name again.”
“Certainly not, Mrs. E. Unless,” Kevin added, “some incident of unusual interest occurs, and the other newspapers learn of it, and report it. You surely would not expect me to be the only journalist in London who refrained from printing the story, would you?”
“Good Gad, O’Connell, you sound just like Ramses,” I said in exasperation. “No such incident will occur. I have no intention of becoming involved with the nonsensical doings at the British Museum.”
“Oh, indeed?” His rather wide mouth opened, not in a smile but in a snarl of rage. “Sure an’ begorra, but I might have known … The spalpeen! The treacherous little serpent—”
“There.” Kevin pointed. “D’ye see that big yellow umbrella?”
“The weather being inclement, a number of parasols are to be seen,” I replied. “But in this dreadful fog it is impossible to make out colors with any degree of—”
“There, just there—in front of Chalfont House.” Kevin growled deep in his throat. “Lying in wait, lurking like a ghoul … Och, the shame of the creature then!”
The umbrella he had mentioned was not difficult to distinguish after all, for unlike the others on the pavements it remained stationary, just outside the high iron fence enclosing the grounds of Chalfont House. Though there was a lamppost not far away, I could see very little more than the umbrella itself. It was a very large umbrella.
“Who is it?” I asked, squinting in an effort to see better.
“Who else but that creeping snake Minton? You had better go round to the back, Mrs. E.”
“Nonsense. I will not skulk into a house as if I had no right to be there. Run along, Mr. O’Connell (and make sure you change your boots and your socks as soon as you get home). A confrontation between you and Minton could only lead to acrimony and to delay.”
“But, Mrs. E.—”
“I am quite capable of dealing with impertinent journalists. As you ought to know.”
The heavy doors of Chalfont House burst open. Light spilled out onto the steps; from the form silhouetted against it came a voice weirdly distorted by the damp and the fog. “Peabody! Where are yooooooou, Peabody? Curse it!”
I could see the butler plucking at Emerson’s coattails, trying to calm him; but ’twas of no avail. Sans hat, coat, scarf, or umbrella, Emerson plunged down the stairs and ran to the gate. In his passion he was unable to deal with the latch; he clung there, bellowing and banging on the railings. “Peeeeeea-body! Devil take it, where are yooooooou?”
“I must go,” I said. But I spoke to empty air; a rapidly fading shadow was the only sign of Kevin O’Connell.
I called to my agitated spouse, but his irritable iterations drowned out my voice. By the time I reached him, the yellow umbrella had pounced. Emerson confronted it head-on, with only the gate between them. He had fallen silent; I heard another voice, high-pitched and rapid. “And what is your opinion, Professor …” it was asking.
“Emerson, what the—what are you doing out in this fog without a hat?” I demanded.
Emerson glanced at me. “Oh, there you are, Peabody. The most extraordinary thing … Only have a look.”
Whereupon he seized the umbrella and spun it like a wheel. The person under it, who seemed to be attached to it in some fashion I could not make out, spun with it, and the lamplight fell full upon her face. Yes, dear Reader—her face! The journalist—was a woman!
“Good Gad,” I exclaimed. “I was under the impression that you were a man.”
“I am as capable as any man,” was the fierce reply, as a notebook was brandished in my face. She had attached her umbrella to her belt in order to leave her hands free for writing, and I had to admire the ingenuity of the concept even as I deplored her forward behavior. “Tell me, Mrs. Emerson,” she went on, without scarcely a pause to draw breath, “are you working with Scotland Yard on the murder case?”
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“What murder case? There is no indication—”
“Amelia!” Emerson had recovered from his surprise at discovering that the assiduous reporter was female—for that was my interpretation of his mention of the word “extraordinary.” Now he seized me by the arm and attempted to draw me inside the railing. Since the gate was still closed, this did not succeed. “Don’t talk to that—that person,” he insisted. “Don’t speak a word. Even a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will be misquoted by these vultures—excuse me, young lady—and you know your unfortunate tendency to babble—”
“I beg your pardon, Emerson!” I exclaimed. “But we will go into that at another time. I have no intention of permitting an interview; I particularly object to being waylaid and accosted at my front door. However, let me point out that I cannot enter until you open the gate.”
I moved as I spoke, edging in between Emerson and Miss Minton. She was forced to retreat in order to avoid being jabbed by the spokes of my open parasol, but once out of its range she stubbornly stood her ground and repeated her question. I could make out her features more clearly now. She was younger than I had expected. One could not have called her pretty. Her features were too strongly marked, her chin positively masculine in outline, her brows heavy and forbidding. The pins and combs that attempted to confine her thick black hair had lost the struggle; jetty locks straggled damply over her ears.
Cursing (but, let me do him justice, cursing under his breath), Emerson fumbled with the latch. Miss Minton stood poised on tiptoe, as if ready to leap forward, and I verily believe she would have done so, following us to the very door of the house, if something had not happened to distract her.
It was I who first caught sight of the weird, the unbelievable vision, and my exclamation of astonished incredulity caused Miss Minton to turn and Emerson to look up. For a moment we all three stood frozen in disbelief; for the form we saw, advancing with measured strides along the pavement opposite, was that of an ancient Egyptian priest clad in long white robes and a leopard-skin cloak. Long wisps of pale fog clung to his garments like trailing mummy wrappings, and the lamplight glimmered in the ebon waves of his curled wig. He passed into the clustering mist and vanished.
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Featured photo: Australian edition of The Painted Queen, by Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess; Additional photos: Daniel H. Tong / Unsplash; Alchetron