(I’m going to tell you who the murderer is. If you don’t already know, or don’t want to know, don’t keep reading.)
Book 9 of the Amelia Peabody series, Seeing a Large Cat introduces several new stylistic and narrative choices. For one thing, this is the first book that utilizes passages from another point of view besides Amelia’s. There are sections, denoted Manuscript H, which are told in a third-person perspective (rather than Amelia’s first-person, journal style) and follow the exploits of “the children” (i.e. Nefret, David, and Ramses). These purport to have been written by Ramses, and follow his point of view, but also talk about exploits of Nefret’s and David’s of which Amelia is unaware. This is partially because they are all no longer children, the youngest being Ramses who is 16 and quite mature (mostly), and so are becoming more autonomous. They are actively participating in events separate from Amelia and Emerson, and even instigating plot-points without either of their parents’ knowledge.
The book opens with the return of Ramses and David from a stay with a Bedouin tribe for several months. Ramses is dressed like a “native” in turban and headcloth, while David is dressed in a neat, European suit. Both are much changed, and Amelia (and many others except Nefret) do not immediately recognize either. The hotel doormen assume Ramses is an Egyptian and try to stop him from entering the European hotel, while allowing David to pass. This is really a bit of commentary both on the extreme superficiality of the racial prejudices against Egyptians of the time, and also about the similarity in looks between the two boys.
It is then their sad duty to inform Ramses that his beloved cat, Bastet, passed away of old age while he was away. He doesn’t react much, naturally, but reading between the lines one can tell he’s been deeply affected by her loss. She was his friend and familiar from a very early age. They attempt to get him to adopt one of her kittens in her place, a rather silly, purry creature named Sekhmet. He is not enthused. The plot of the murder then progresses, introducing us to the Bellinghams, an American Civil War Colonel and his spoiled and selfish daughter. She spends the entire book pursuing a disgusted Ramses, while her father spends the entire book attempting to enmesh the Emersons in his affairs. Bellingham claims his daughter, Dolly, is in danger, with some evidence to back that up. Meanwhile, the Emersons are goaded into investigating a specific tomb in the Valley of the Kings, tomb 20A. Said tomb does not exist, according to all the experts, but they are lead to it by the nose anyway. At first, it is barely a hole in the ground, and inside they discover a mummified body. Hardly an unusual occurence in Egypt, but it is unusual for the mummy to be an American woman dead less than 5 years. She turns out to be the wife of Colonel Bellinham, said to have run off with his secretary five years ago. Everyone assumes the secretary subsequently killed her, and they set out to locate the man, who also appears to have designs on killing Bellingham.
This is the first time Amelia has investigated quite such a cold case, but she does go about it with her usual intelligence and vigor. She also has the active cooperation (mostly) of the Professor, and the clandestine cooperation of Ramses, Nefret and David. She has almost worked out the entire sequence of events leading to Mrs. Bellingham’s death when the dramatic denoument occurrs. It is revealed that the true killer is Bellingham himself, when they stumble on his recent murder of his former secretary (who had rather been attempting to get him to confess to the murder of his lady-love). Bellingham is an old misogynist, so Amelia naturally irritates him a great deal. He attempts to take her hostage and collapses the tomb (where it is all taking place) in on them. Ramses makes a daring leap through the falling rubble, and comes to grip with the Colonel in the dark. While attempting to subdue him, he accidentally kills him instead, and saving his mother’s life. After their rescue from the depths of the tomb, there follows a rather touching and understated scene between them. Much of his life, Ramses has asked to partake in the nightly ritual of whiskey and soda with his parents. Always, Amelia has refused on the grounds that he is too young. This night, while the others are effusive with praise, she is reserved as ever. However, she does serve him his very first whiskey and soda, a wordless sign that she no longer views him as a child, in recognition of his bravery, resourcefulness, and maturity.
It’s interesting really. Ramses’ coming of age (which is mostly what this book is about) requires the spilling of blood (Bellingham’s) and also his first navigations of the games played between men and women. But this is all balanced by his speaking aloud, for the first time, of his deep and abiding love for Nefret. She is still unaware of the depth of his regard, but he speaks of it to David (who does not understand, despite being older, but is sympathetic nonetheless).
There is a side-plot to this book as well. Peters’ skill is such that it fits harmoniously with the whole, but it is really entirely extraneous to the main plot of the book. It centers around two characters introduced in The Lion in the Valley who are having marital difficulties. Their marriage was facilitated by Amelia in the earlier volume, but now he has fallen madly in “love” with a fictional Egyptian Princess invented by a lady-medium. The medium, Mrs Jones, is afraid to cut him off for fear of his sanity, and Amelia helps to both break the young man of his dependence on Mrs. Jones and re-direct his affections to his distressed wife. Almost the entire point of this plot seems to be to bring Mrs. Jones and Cyrus Vandergelt into contact. They become engaged by the end of the story (with Amelia’s help, naturally).
Amelia is not translating any fairy-tales in this book, but the title is a reference to Ancient Egyptian literature. Several times characters have dreams featuring the cat Bastet. According to the dream papyrus, which Ramses is translating, such dreams mean good luck. There are also several cat related minor plot points, including Mrs. Jones, whose first name is Katherine, or Cat as Cyrus calls her affectionately.
There is also Sekhmet, who Ramses finally accepts as a substitute for his lost friend at the very end.
Next week, The Ape Who Guards the Balance, and the return of an old adversary!