Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Ape Who Guards the Balance!

Our book today is Elizabeth Peters' 1998 novel The Ape Who Guards the Balance, the tenth adventure of her intrepid Egyptologist Amelia Peabody and her ever-expanding circle of family and cohorts in the Edwardian Middle East.

This particular book opens in London, however, where the headstrong and intrepid Amelia is determined to join Mrs. Pankhurst and a crowd of suffragettes in yet another demonstration for the vote. Amelia's super-manly husband Radcliffe Emerson thinks the whole business is a bit unseemly; their dreamboat son Walter – nicknamed Ramses – attends the rally mainly because he's attracted to one of Mrs. Pankhurt's daughters; he's teased about that fact by his half-sister Nefret, whom Amelia and Emerson adopted in an oasis several years/adventures ago. And the whole business is merely a distraction – ordinarily the family would be in Egypt doing research, but Emerson's blunt and outspoken behavior toward the archeological powers that be hasn't done him any favors, and what research projects are eventually awarded him don't at first seem all that exciting.

The 'at first' hints, of course, at the fact that Amelia Peabody isn't an ordinary person – she's the main character in an ongoing mystery novel series. And as all devotees of the genre know well, such main characters can find something exciting in a dish of dry oatmeal. That's one of the many problems with such serials: after two or three adventures, things stop being even remotely believable and the protagonists might as well have laser-vision and bright yellow lycra costumes. This is the paradox of popularity that the father of the mystery genre, Arthur Conan Doyle, understood thoroughly: the public's clamor for more adventures of a favorite cast of characters can quickly warp the ensuing novels out of all semblance of reality. Doyle most famously sought a way out of this paradox by killing off his celebrated detective, although the public wouldn't hear of it being permanent. But he also tried to side-step the trap of unbelievability by making it irrelevant – he made his detective what we might call pre-emptively unbelievable, a super-rational problem-solver with proficiencies in everything from music to jiu-jitsu and a profession that was unique.

Ever since, that paradox has haunted all popular mystery series, and authors have been more or drastically less successful in thwarting it. The easiest method is to make endless adventures a kind of job description – hence the popularity of police procedurals and private eye novels, where new adventures literally keep walking into the room. And by association the most difficult method is to make the detective a complete outsider to any such mechanism – a busybody, in other words, whose insights are either sought by the constabulary or unwillingly thrust upon it. But no matter what the method, the jumping-off point into the realms of fantasy tends to happen at around the third or fourth book in the series.

In a perfect reading world, mystery authors would be stronger than this problem! In such a world, Thomas Harris would not be lured (or browbeaten) by enormous sales to keep revisiting his rather boring signature serial killer Hannibal Lecter, Dr. Watson would not appear often enough for his war-wound to wander around his body, Travis McGee would not have taken enough socks to the jaw to powderize his entire pretty head, and poor Spenser would not have become the gray and amorphous whatever he was at the end of his run. In a perfect reading world, the public would heap their book-buying praise on a mystery author, not a set of fictional characters. They'd say, “We want more Nancy Atherton!” not “We want more Aunt Dimity!” (Of course, in a perfect reading world, authors would have the resolve to say, “I don't care how much you pay me – you're not getting another adventure of the Toff, and that's final”)

But most lazy or self-indulgent readers don't say that – when they find something that pleases them, they want more of it, ad infinitum. Writers who strike such a chord in the reading public can count their blessings – it's a steady paycheck, after all – and many of them end up embracing their luck.

The Amelia Peabody mysteries, certainly by volume ten, have done a yeoman's amount of embracing. The time-honored device of the writer presenting himself as merely the curator of remarkable original documents got its mystery-novel start with Arthur Conan Doyle and Watson's battered tin dispatch-box containing who knows how many previously unrevealed Sherlock Holmes cases (although, as we all saw when reading recently about Geoffrey of Monmouth, the actual device is much, much older than the murder mystery genre), and Elizabeth Peters uses it here with a broad, grinning gusto:
Students of the life and works of Mrs. Amelia P. Emerson will be pleased to learn that the present Editor's tireless research on the recently discovered collection of Emerson's papers has yielded additional fruit. Certain excerpts from Manuscript H were included in the most recent volume of Mrs. Emerson's memoirs, and other excerpts appear here.

This is good grace indeed, and many thousands of readers have fallen in love with the infectious happiness that shimmers on every page of Peters' books. Her Amelia is as far away from Sherlock Holmes as you could imagine: she's not all that analytically adept, she's very intelligent but a far cry from intellectually rigorous, and she's a rotten shot with a pistol (in our present book, she very nearly shoots her own son while attempting to rescue him). She and her brawny husband (in something of a record, the always-disrobing Emerson manages to be becomingly undraped on the very first page of The Ape Who Guards the Balance) and their gorgeous, lively children (who are all in their twenties by the time of this book, ready to take over for their parents and begin having adventures of their own that presumably won't involve dying of influenza or getting machine-gunned at the Marne) are constantly quarreling and sporting with each other – so much so that you often feel sorry for the novels' various bad guys, who can hardly get a nefarious deed in sideways.

The books are vivacious, and this one is no exception: the skullduggery that first involves Amelia & Co. in London soon follows them to the Valley of the Kings, and for the first time in the series, the young people are given a separate plot as developed and page-turning as anything else in the book (of course it weaves itself into the rest of the book – Peters is quietly very, very adept at plotting). This latter point is important and can often curdle a long-running mystery series: since the main detectives aren't really 'allowed' to change all that much (the readers want terse people to stay terse, helpful people to be always helpful, etc), writers often seek to exercise their actual novelist skills on the secondary characters – usually to the benefit of the series in general. If her fans let her (and if she wants to), Peters should send Amelia and Emerson off into permanent retirement and let Ramses and Nefret have the run of the newborn 20th century.

Before they get even less believable, that is. Already Amelia has a super-villain of her very own – his name is Sethos, and her descriptions of him will remind every reader of Professor Moriarty. That's good heady stuff, to be sure, but it's also an excellent barometer of a series' critical pressure. Normal people don't attract super-villains: super-heroes do. And there's the unmissable note of rote that's already crept into the series by this point, visible even in tossed-off lines:
I will not bore the Reader with descriptions of the sights of Luxor. They can be found, not only in my earlier volumes, but in Baedeker. To say that we had become blasé about them would not be entirely accurate, for I will never tire of any monument in Egypt; but …

There's no real good way to end that thought except 'but I really, really need a rest,' and even the most devout readers might find themselves thinking the mighty Amelia has earned one. The pleasure of a long-running mystery series like this one are enormous (lest any fans think the point of this whole digression of a post is to say otherwise!) - the allure of going home again is nothing cheap and nothing to be ashamed of – but its pitfalls are as deadly as the tomb-traps that await our intrepid archeologists. Even while I'm whole-heartedly recommending The Ape Who Guards the Balance (the one or two instances in which a first-time reader will feel left out of a running gag are minor and spaced far apart), I'm wondering if perhaps those pitfalls don't merit the use of my favorite investigative tool: the regular series! Shall I go through the world of murder mysteries, discussing the various long-running series? Why, perhaps I shall.


Rohan said...

Shall I go through the world of murder mysteries, discussing the various long-running series? Why, perhaps I shall.

Oh, please do!

I wonder if your point about not allowing the main detectives to change much is always true. Familiarity is the key to success for some of them, Agatha Christie style, but others benefit from the long story arc of a whole series because, while the victims and suspects necessarily remain somewhat opaque, the detective (and cohort) can develop and even grow. I find that now I care much more about the ongoing characters in, say, the Dalgleish mysteries, or the Elizabeth George series, than I do about the cases they're involved in.

Steve Donoghue said...

Yes, but how much of that is YOU, and how much of it is the growth of the various characters involved? I'd argue that in most cases, readers come to 'care' more about the detectives mainly because those detectives DON'T change - they still drink more than is humanly possible, they still produce world-weary quotes from George Herbert when viewing dead bodies ... hell, even their CATS don't seem to age! But there are notable exceptions (Hammond Innes comes to mind, and of course poor Inspector Morse), and the whole thing could be worth exploring in a ... you guessed it ... REGULAR FEATURE!

Chuck Darwin said...

I second Rohan's request. And please do start with Morse...the recent "Lewis" series, although moody, enjoyably ridiculous, and involving, reminds viewers how absolutely crucial the character of Morse remains, both in the novels and on screen, to the evolution of the late 20th century mystery genre.

Rohan said...

Sadly, I have none of the Inspector Morse books. How is this possible? If only ...

Steve Donoghue said...

Gulp! I've been remiss! Back to the Post Office I go ...