There’s Something about Amelia

When Elizabeth Peters’s first Amelia Peabody mystery, The Crocodile on the Sandbank, appeared in print in 1975, Peters had no way of knowing Amelia would become a role model for a host of intrepid female protagonists. In fact, Peters (a pseudonym for American writer Barbara Mertz), who held a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago, had no plans to write another mystery featuring the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted, parasol-wielding spinster. Yet six years later, Peters brought Amelia back in The Curse of the Pharaohs, and over the next four decades, wrote 18 more novels starring the redoubtable sleuth. The final book in the Egypt-oriented series, The Painted Queen (2017), was completed by Peters’ longtime friend and fellow mystery author Joan Hess.

Over the course of her literary adventures, Amelia acquired an archaeologist husband (Radcliffe Emerson), a son (Walter “Ramses” Peabody), an adopted daughter (Nefret Forth), a cat (Bastet), a posse of devoted friends, and at least one archnemesis. From the very beginning, there has been something about Amelia and her life that hooks readers and doesn’t let them go. Perhaps it’s the dryly witty tone in which Peters recounted Amelia’s adventures. Or it might be Peters’s ability to neatly weave a delightful mix of suspense, mystery, and romance into each plot. Or is it the endlessly engaging cast of secondary characters, who orbit around Amelia like moons around a planet? Whatever it is, it’s a winning formula, and one that has been successfully adopted by the dozen authors listed below.

Tasha Alexander

Upon meeting Lady Emily Ashton in Tasha Alexander’s debut, And Only to Deceive, readers quickly discover that, like Amelia Peabody, Emily doesn’t care one jot about societal conventions. After she discovers a mysterious note hidden among her late husband Philip’s effects, Emily learns she really didn’t know anything at all about the man she married. Now, in an effort to get to know her late husband a bit better, Emily decides to pursue her own studies of the classical antiquities Philip loved. However, in the process of brushing up on her Greek mythology and examining assorted classical artifacts, Emily discovers there is something quite shady, and possibly dangerous, afoot in the world of ancient antiquities. When it comes to sleuthing support, Emily is fortunate to be able to rely on Cecile du Lac as well as her late husband’s best friend, Colin Hargreaves, who, as the series progresses, goes on to play another important role in her life (much in the same way Emerson does for Amelia).

Jennifer Ashley

Jennifer Ashley’s Kat Holloway, the literary lead in her Victorian-set Below Stairs series, is as passionate about cooking as Amelia Peabody is about archaeology. Kat uses her considerable culinary skills to support not only herself, but also her young daughter, who lives with another couple since Kat is a single mother (something that would raise more than a few eyebrows in Victorian society).  When Kat is hired on as cook for Lord Rankin in Death below Stairs, she is determined to make her new posting a success, which means ignoring some of the less than conventional members of Lord Rankin’s household and concentrating on her cooking. However, when Kat’s young Irish kitchen maid is found dead, Kat vows she will do whatever it takes to bring the murderer to justice. While Amelia may have a leg up on Kat in the romance department, Ashley does offer readers hope for Kat in the form of Daniel McAdam, a delivery man with a mysterious past, a teenage son, and an impressive set of crime-fighting skills. With cook/amateur detective Kat, Ashley not only gives readers a heroine unafraid to do the right thing despite what society might think, she also delivers the kind of cleverly plotted, danger-infused mysteries in which Amelia would find herself perfectly at home.

Maia Chance

What’s a girl to do? When Lola Woodby’s two-timing husband, Alfie, unexpected dies, leaving her with very few regrets but a ton of outstanding debts, she—along with her stern Swedish cook, Berta Lundgren, and her Pomeranian, Cedric—moves into the only place not already claimed by debt collectors (or Alfie’s odious brother-in-law, Chisolm): a Greenwich Village apartment Alfie kept as his illicit love nest. With a place to live taken care of (at least for the time being), Lola now needs to figure out how to pay next month’s rent. So, when one of Alfie’s old mistresses asks Lola to retrieve an incriminating reel of film, the idea for the Discrete Retrieval Agency is born, as readers discover in Come Hell or Highball. Chance enlivens her writing with cheeky, Dorothy Parkeresque wit, and she gives Lola plenty of opportunities to flirt with sexy-as-sin private detective Ralph Oliver. Add this to a frothy plot that effortlessly mixes mystery with a twist of romance, and you have the mystery equivalent of a perfect champagne cocktail, ideal for Amelia Peabody fans.

Kerry Greenwood

Imagine Amelia Peabody but with a better wardrobe and a more fluid philosophy about love and romance, and you’ll have a good idea of Kerry Greenwood’s one-of-a-kind literary creation: the Honorable Phryne (her father forgot her intended name, Psyche, at her christening) Fisher, a wealthy aristocrat and detective who lives in St. Kilda, Melbourne, in the 1920s. After running away to France, where she worked as an ambulance driver during World War I, Phryne settled down briefly at her family’s estate in England, where she solved the case of a missing diamond necklace. However, Phryne’s career in detection begins in earnest with Cocaine Blues, in which Phryne is hired by a couple who desperately want her to locate their missing daughter. Now back in Australia, Phryne goes on to establish herself as a successful private detective, with some assistance from her maid, Dot, taxi drivers Bert and Cec, and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson. While Amelia Peabody carries a parasol, Phryne carries a pearl-handled pistol—and neither woman is afraid to brandish her weapon of choice when it comes to defending loved ones or pursuing villains. Amelia and Phryne are also sisters in spirit when it comes to globe-trotting adventures and the pursuit of justice.

Cheryl Honigford

Like Amelia Peabody, Vivian Witchell knows something about living out her dreams. As a secretary at a radio station, Vivian dreams of becoming a big star. And when her small part on The Darkness Knows, the station’s popular radio serial, starts to catch on, it seems Vivian might finally get her chance. Then Marjorie Fox, a star on another radio show, is found murdered—and Vivian’s name may well be next on the killer’s list. The station owner hires PI Charlie Haverman to act as a bodyguard, but Vivian is determined to ferret out the murderer, with or without his professional help. From the very first book in the Viv and Charlie series, The Darkness Knows, Honigford nails the late 1930s Chicago setting, and she is equally skilled at writing the kind of romantic banter (between Vivian and Charlie) that Elizabeth Peters created for Amelia and Emerson. Viv’s deliciously acerbic sense of humor also mirrors Amelia’s: “Frankly, it surprised Vivian that Lake Geneva even had a police station. The only crime likely committed here with any regularity was wearing white after Labor Day.”

Anna Lee Huber

If Lady Kiera Darby’s husband Anthony wasn’t already dead, she would be sorely tempted to kill him herself. While they were married, Anthony forced Kiera to use her artistic talents to illustrate a human anatomy book he authored. Now that Anthony is gone, Kiera has taken refuge with her sister Alana and brother-in-law Philip at their estate in Scotland. However, when a guest at Alana’s house party is found murdered, Kiera, because of her scandalous reputation, becomes the leading suspect. Like Peters’ Amelia, Keira possesses unique knowledge and talents, both of which come in handy while solving mysteries. Also like Amelia, Kiera has someone to team up with, both in detection and in life. Inquiry agent Sebastian Gage is introduced in the first book in the series, The Anatomist’s Wife, and with each subsequent book, the romantic relationship that blossoms between this Regency couple mirrors that of Amelia and Emerson.

Susan Elia MacNeal

When readers are first introduced to protagonist Maggie Hope in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, it is 1940, and she is arriving in London (after being raised by an aunt in America) to look at—and probably sell—the house recently left to her by her grandmother. Inspired by the wartime sacrifices being made by the citizens of London, Maggie decides to stay in England to do her part to defeat the Nazis. Despite her mad mathematical skills, Maggie is initially ignored by the code breakers at MI6, but she does land a job working as one of Winston Churchill’s secretaries. When it comes to creating a heroine unafraid to tackle danger head on, MacNeal has readers covered with equally independent and resourceful Maggie. In addition, like Elizabeth Peters, MacNeal firmly grounds her Maggie Hope Mystery series in a specific time and place. In fact, MacNeal’s use of plot-enriching historical details and cameo appearances from real personages give the books the same kind of irresistibly rich historical flavor that readers love in the Amelia Peabody series.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Sujata Massey

No one has to tell Perveen Mistry that it’s a man’s world. It has taken every ounce of grit and gumption Perveen has to become Bombay’s first female lawyer, and each day, Perveen must battle the antiquated notion that a woman can’t serve justice as well as a man. Fortunately, there are some legal cases, such as those found in The Widows of Malabar Hill, where Perveen’s gender proves useful. The eponymous widows have recently (and mysteriously) signed over their only ongoing source of income to charity, and because they live in full purdah (strict seclusion from men), Perveen is the only one in her father’s law firm who can talk to them. Spunky Perveen, who isn’t afraid to fight for her right to be treated as an equal in a male-dominated profession, is cut from the same literary cloth as Amelia, and readers who revel in the evocative atmosphere and settings of the Amelia books will love Massey’s rendering of equally vibrant and fascinating 1920s India.

Andrea Penrose

In Andrea Penrose’s entertaining Wrexford and Sloane mysteries, Charlotte Sloane, a satirical cartoonist who’s been using her late husband’s name, A. J. Quill, for her work, finds her life intersecting with that of the Earl of Wrexford, a bored aristocrat and a respected amateur chemist. The couple first meet in Murder on Black Swan Lane, when a reverend, who had been publicly feuding with Wrexford over his “debauched behavior,” is found murdered, and Wrexford becomes suspect number one. Because he knows Charlotte’s real identity, Wrexford coerces her into helping him investigate the murder and find the real killer. Penrose doesn’t hesitate to delve into the darker side of the Regency era, and she deftly layers in plenty of sexual chemistry between independent Charlotte and the equally stubborn Wrexford as the two sleuth their way to through the various mysteries they encounter.

Deanna Raybourn

Substitute butterflies for mummies but keep the unconventional heroine with a penchant for globe-trotting adventures and a well-built man, and you have a good idea of the literary flavor of Deanna Raybourn’s historical mysteries featuring Veronica Speedwell. In the first Veronica Speedwell mystery, A Curious Beginning, Veronica is finally free to travel the world as a lepidopterist after the second of the two aunts who raised her dies. However, after the funeral, Veronica returns to the cottage where she lived with her aunts only to narrowly avoid being abducted by a stranger, thanks to Baron Maximillian von Stauffenbach, an old friend of her mother’s. The baron then convinces Veronica to hide out at the home of natural historian Revelstoke “Stoker” Templeton Vane, and this is just the start of Veronica’s adventures. Like Peters in the early Peabody novels, Raybourn narrates her equally amusing books in the first person, giving readers an intimate connection with Veronica and an ample taste of her dry wit. And, of course, the sexual chemistry between Veronica and Stoker, much like that of Amelia and Emerson, is off the charts. As an added bonus, Raybourn gives a graceful tip of her literary cap to the Amelia books with her third Veronica adventure, A Treacherous Curse, in which a mummy’s curse plays an integral role.

Rosemary Simpson

Like Amelia Peabody, Prudence MacKenzie refuses to fit neatly into the box society has assigned upper-class females in Gilded Age America. Readers first meet Prudence, an heiress, in What the Dead Leave Behind. Her fiancé, Charles, has just been killed in the Great Blizzard of 1888, and Prudence is coping with her grief by using laudanum on a daily basis. Then, through determination and pluck, she weans herself off the drug and forges a brighter future for herself. And with the help of Charles’s old school friend Geoffrey Hunter, a former Pinkerton detective and practicing attorney, Prudence begins investigating the circumstances behind her husband’s death. Delving into the dark side of the Gilded Age, Simpson fittingly says, “I do not write cozy mysteries, but historical noirs.” Combine Simpson’s historically realistic plots with a strong, independent protagonist who isn’t afraid to flout convention in the pursuit of the truth, and you have a marvelous new series tailor-made for Amelia Peabody admirers.

Sherry Thomas

What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman? That is the brilliant premise of Sherry Thomas’s beguiling Lady Sherlock series starring Charlotte Holmes. The series begins with A Study in Scarlet Women, in which Charlotte finds herself on the outs with polite society (and her parents) after she engineers a romantic tryst to avoid the traditional female fate of being married off to someone she doesn’t love. Now to support herself—and her insatiable sweet tooth—Charlotte opens a private consultation business as “Sherlock Holmes.” What Sherlock’s clients don’t know is that perceptive Charlotte is responsible for the firm’s success in solving cases. While Thomas’s deliciously clever mysteries, all of which were inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, are the main focus of the series to date, Thomas also makes room for a slowly simmering romance between Charlotte and a longtime family friend. Readers who enjoy the strong cast of secondary characters in the Amelia Peabody books will revel in the Lady Sherlock series’ equally entertaining supporting cast, many of whom, such as Mrs. Watson, are clever twists on characters in the Sherlock cannon.

About the Author:

The Romance Writers of America 2002 Librarian of the Year, Charles has been reviewing romances for Booklist since 1999 and is the author of Romance Today: An A to Z Guide to Contemporary American Romance. After working for the Scottsdale Public Library System for 30 years, Charles retired and went to work for Scottsdale's independent bookstore the Poisoned Pen, where he still gets to push books but has to deal with far fewer computer questions.

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