A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Toward the end of her life, Agatha Christie remarked, "There is this about being married to an archaeologist. The older you get, the more interesting you become." Christie met her future husband, Max Mallowan, when she visited Leonard Woolley's excavation at Ur in Iraq, in the spring of 1930, about the same time Murder at the Vicarage was published. The excavation of a barrow in rural England formed a subtext to this novel. She had previously displayed her knowledge of archaeology in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), in which the death of an archaeologist, Professor Beddingfield, gets the action moving.
In 1936 she described her experiences at Ur in Murder in Mesopotamia, basing her main characters on Woolley and his wife Katharine; the minor characters are modeled on the people who formed the Woolleys' dig staff, including Mallowan. In 1936, she also wrote Death on the Nile, which takes place on a cruise with characters visiting various archaeological sites and, in 1937, Appointment with Death in which the arena is Petra in Jordan. Archaeology forms a backdrop in both of these novels, but no actual work is done or described. In her 1951 novel They Came to Baghdad, Christie is again writing about an excavation. Death Comes as the End, a tour de force published in 1945, is set in ancient Egypt. The plot is conventional Christie: a series of murders occurring on an estate is solved by the scribe Hori. She dedicated the book to professor of Egyptology S.R.K. Glanville, who originally suggested the idea of using ancient Egypt as a setting. Glanville told her, "There is no difficulty at all. There is no reason why a detective story shouldn't be just as easy to place in ancient Egypt as...in England." So easy, yet no one had ever thought of such a thing before.
A few mystery novels have been written by archaeologists. In 1938 Stanley Casson wrote Murder by Burial, but it is out of print. Glyn Daniel wrote The Cambridge Murders (1945) and Welcome Death (1954). Both are out of print, but I have read the latter. It is a straight detective novel with an archaeologist as the protagonist. More recently, Gordon R. Willey wrote Selena (1993), a delicious yarn in which the author's slightly old-fashioned prose and sensibility are neatly juxtaposed with a modern story of death, drugs, and madness. Willey's hero, retired Harvard archaeologist Colin Edwards, speaks eloquently of archaeological matters.
The best of the current writers of archaeological mysteries are Elizabeth Peters and Lindsay Davis. Peters sets her novels in the late Victorian period. Her character, Amelia Emerson is a forthright, wealthy spinster who, on a tour of Egypt, meets Radcliffe Emerson, an English archaeologist. These books--there are nine featuring the Emersons--are delightfully witty and intelligent. Peters (Egyptologist Barbara Mertz), writes with a sure hand, and she weaves real people into her stories, giving them further authenticity. Her scenes of Amelia with Howard Carter, for example, in such books as The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog (1992) and The Hippopotamus Pool (1996) are hilarious. Equally disarming are Emerson's rants about the sloppiness of archaeologists, especially Gaston Maspero, head of the French Antiquities Service in Egypt .
Davis, on the other hand, sets her novels in late first-century A.D. Rome, and, although not an archaeologist, she brings that period to boisterous life. Her character, Marcus Didio Falco, has been likened to "Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in ancient Rome." Falco is adorable and full of joie de vivre, hardly the equivalent of Hammett and Chandler's alienated Spade and Marlowe, but in terms of writing, the comparison is apt. In such novels as Shadows in Bronze (1990) and Time to Depart (1995), Davis writes with authority and charm, and the reader feels transported to the time.
Good, but not quite on the level of the works of these women, are Steven Saylor's novels of first-century B.C. Rome that feature the droll Gordianus the Finder. Although the detail is meticulous, the stories are just not as much fun as those of Peters and Davis (although I think Saylor's tongue is planted firmly in his cheek). Saylor's Gordianus books include Roman Blood (1991), Catalina's Riddle (1993), and Murder on the Appian Way (1996).
Amy Lubelski is the editor of Woman of Mystery, a newsletter for Agatha Christie enthusiasts, and ARCHAEOLOGY's production manager.