At long last, some 14 years after the publication of The Night Train to Memphis, Barbara Mertz, writing under her best-known nom de plume, Elizabeth Peters, returns with the sixth book in the Vicky Bliss series. Delightfully presented in what the author calls ďthe current now,Ē complete with cell phones and other modern techie additions, Vicky and her nemesis-slash-lover John Tregarth havenít aged but are presented as if we met them just yesterday. Mertz/Peters has her hands firmly on the reins of the Vicky Bliss persona despite the intervening years, and fans of the Amelia Peabody series will be equally delighted with this entry into the annals of MPM (Mertz, Peters, and Michaels) works.
As with The Night Train, (also a Vicky Bliss title) Laughter of Dead Kings takes place in Egypt Ė Amelia Peabodyís territory. Favorite characters, including Feisal, the Inspector of Antiquities we met in Night Train, and the indomitable, inimitable Schmidt, Vickyís boss at the Munich National Museum, are back again to take their places at Vickyís side. The mystery is one that grabs Vicky and John in spasms of horror and dismay, for someone has stolen King Tutís mummy from his tomb in the Valley of Kings. Even more shocking, the Egyptian police believe that John (formerly known as John Smythe, retired art thief extraordinaire) is the guilty culprit. The theft has all the earmarks of Johnís former MO, and so the dynamic duo, with sidekick Schmidt, must not only clear Johnís name but also draw out the guilty and bring the famous mummy home to rest.
The plotting isnít quite as tight as earlier Vicky Bliss tales, the humorous touches not quite as deft. Nevertheless, champions and fans of the MPM writings will love the clever, subtle mentions (albeit nameless) of Amelia Peabody and the possible connections between John and the Emerson family line. One of the reasons that Vicky seems so ageless is that she has always been a strong woman, personable, educated, and determined - an extension, perhaps, as is Amelia, of the remarkable Barbara Mertz herself. Certainly Mertzís own training as an Egyptologist at the famed Chicago Oriental Institute and her own strong, intelligent personality are echoed in her characterizations of both Vicky Bliss and Amelia Peabody.
Of course, murder - a current one - comes into the plotline as well. With the grisly presentations of dismembered hands, both mummified and recent, the story ramps up to an intense hunt for the thief and the murderer. Beleaguered by their need to solve the crimes and protect John from a sojourn to an Egyptian prison, Vicky and her cohorts struggle to keep the mummy theft a secret from the public for poor Feisalís sake, while recovering the treasured antiquity safely. Adding to the worries piled on Vickyís statuesque shoulders, Schmidt is being his usual uncontrollable self, falling in love, taking off on his own tangents, and presenting Vicky with improbable scenarios. The reader is often torn between wanting the book to end immediately with a neatly wrapped solution and wanting the story to last longer, weaving and winding out slowly for maximum frustrated enjoyment.