Elizabeth Peters is well-known for her Amelia Peabody series of archaeological mystery novels set in late 19th and early 20th century Egypt, but she has also written a number of stand-alone novels and other short mystery series.
This is one of Peters’ contemporary mystery novels (originally published in 1972), where forty-something librarian Jacqueline Kirby first appears. The novel is told largely from the viewpoint of Jean, a young art historian with a fellowship at an influential and well-regarded institute of art and archaeology in Rome. Her friends at the institute are the other three fellows: Andy, Ann and Michael; and three other students: Ted, an Israeli, Deanna, a Brit, and Pedro, a Spaniard, who is also a priest. After an unconventional meeting with Jacqueline, Jean invites her to join the others at a cafe where they meet regularly, and she becomes a favourite with the group.
Also introduced is Albert, a French-speaking Lebanese, who knows Andy and Ann (who are twins, and very alike) from previous acquaintance. Albert is not a very pleasant person, and there is shock, but not much mourning, when he is found murdered after a sightseeing trip to one of Rome’s many churches. Later, a series of accidents to Jean, who was first to discover Albert’s body, inspire Jacqueline to investigate, and then solve the mystery.
The narrow narrative focus on Jean’s point of view means that any action not seen by her, including Jacqueline’s investigations, remains opaque and unpresented to the reader until the surprising climax and revelation. Additionally, much information available to the characters is not presented to the reader. As a result, it’s not possible to spot the murderer (except by guessing), and thus breaks one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction!
Having said that, it’s very entertaining. The interactions between the characters are realistic and their work is made interesting, and they are appealing characters. The setting, of summer in Rome, is beautifully evoked, and the ecclesiastical and historical detail which forms a background to the mystery adds to rather than detracts from the story.
Other Elizabeth Peters’ stand-alone mystery novels I’ve read:
- ‘Legend in Green Velvet’ – set in Scotland, it’s pretty silly, but with some nice touches of danger and suspense.
- ‘Dead Sea Cipher’ – set in Palestine/Israel, with real adventure, non-stop action, and a very appealing heroine.
- ‘The Jackal’s Head’ – set in Egypt, a story with misunderstandings galore, great scene-setting and properly villainous villains.
- ‘The Summer of the Dragon’ – set in Arizona and told in the first person, with a lovely heroine, touches of treasure-hunting, and a cast of very odd characters.