Books of the region: Pharaohs, pillage

April 07, 1996|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Barbara Mertz years ago created Amelia Peabody. Married to an irascible archaeologist ("the father of curses," to his workmen), Amelia was in her 20s and it was about 1880. The pair went up the Nile and into hieroglyphics. Since then, real-life Egyptology has made much progress; Amelia too.

In "The Hippopotamus Pool" (Warner. 384 pages. $22.95), the time is 1900, the locale a mile or so east of the Valley of Kings - where nowadays the Egyptologist Kent R. Weeks explores Kings' Valley Tomb No. 5, the mausoleum for 50 of the sons of Rameses II. Last December, Barbara Mertz of Frederick had a hot, humid, dusty tour inside KV-5, guided by her old friend Mr. Weeks.

The goal in "The Hippopotamus Pool," the eighth novel of this series, is the supposed tomb of Queen Tetisheri. As with "The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog" and "The Last Camel Died at Noon," Ms. Mertz uses the byline Elizabeth Peters. (For the other half of her 50-plus novels the byline is Barbara Michaels.) Egyptologists from 1900 stand around: Flinders Petrie, Wallis Budge, Howard Carter long before he exhumed Tutankhamun. Ms. Mertz's credentials, after all, include a University of Chicago Ph.D.

How many other conspiracies will Amelia Peabody foil, how many crimes solved, in novels still to come? "The Hippopotamus Pool" (a reference to pharaonic mythology) will reassure Elizabeth Peters fans - the sparkle and the suspense never lessen. (Along the way, Ms. Mertz has become a Western Maryland rustic of 17 years' rose-growing. A historical Amelia Peabody has turned up; so have Mystery Guild, Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club awards.)

This time, on Page 253, there is a mischievous allusion to KV-5, where today it's unclear how much of the priestly art of 1,250 B.C. has eluded the graverobbers. To part of Egyptology's audience, Amelia, carefully keeping her century's distance, will still offer the more interesting reading.

***

Hernando de Soto arrived in the New World about 1514, a teen-ager. Except for one visit back in Spain, the rest of his 42 years went by in Central America, then in Peru with Pizarro, in Cuba, finally in his famous, fatal gold search north and west from Florida.

He was a model conquistador - cruel, rapacious, arrogant, sometimes charming. No likeness remains, and few documents (plus a single accepted Soto expedition site, in today's Tallahassee, Fla.). Modern scholars look instead at the Indian communities he skewered and burned on his way to the Mississippi River.

Notwithstanding, David Ewing Duncan has put together an elaborate biography of Soto (the proper form for the son of an obscure landholder) in his "Hernando de Soto" (Crown. 570 pages. Good maps. $40). The plunderer comes alive. No one now around will need to restudy him.

***

For a Bay sailor, what pride in having seen the outside of all 34 surviving lighthouses (once the Chesapeake had about 75). Automated, 23 still flash. Governments can't afford their upkeep; ice and vandals punish them; fan clubs (the U.S. Lighthouse Society, Chesapeake chapter) adopt them.

Linda Turbyville presents all 34 - from Concord Point at Havre de Grace to the Capes - in her illustrated, thorough, affectionate "Bay Beacons: Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay" (Eastwind. 138 pages. $29.95).

***

The vastness of Middle River's airplane-building (5,266 Marauders alone) is lost on post-industrial Baltimore. But books honor the Glenn L. Martin Co., and "Martin Aircraft, 1908-1960," by John R. Breihan, Stan Piet and Roger S. Mason (Narkiewicz/Thompson, 1331 S. Birch St., Santa Ana, Calif. Paper. 208 pages. $29.95), with photos and drawings, makes that achievement plain for all to see.

***

It hurts a little, to be reminded how long it's been since the Orioles finished first. So why do we laugh, when a book relives consecutive pennants and other glories? Because the book is "Palmer and Weaver: Together We Were Eleven Foot Nine," by Jim Palmer and Jim Dale (Andrews and McMeel. 169 pages. $21.95) and because, in this strong-language clubhouse retrospect, Mutt and Jeff, the embattled pitcher and manager,

are funny even when the team loses.

***

"Pittsville: An Eastern Shore Town's History" (Parsons, 3574 Allen Road, Allen 21810. Paper. 86 pages. $10) recalls huge strawberry crops, the railroad and then the highway, the losses to shopping malls. Louis (Casey) Parsons' interviews and old photos are, in short, a model for other small-town historians.

***

Ghosts, it seems, haunt things as well as whole houses. Ed Okonowicz, a professional storyteller, relates 20 such experiences in "Possessed Possessions: Haunted Antiques, Furniture and Collectibles" (Myst and Lace, 1386 Fair Hill Lane, Elkton 21921. Paper. 106 pages. $9.95). Six are in Maryland.

James H. Bready wrote for The Evening Sun for many years as a reporter and a book editor. He writes a monthly column on Maryland books.

Pub date: 04/07/96

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