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The Current Now

by Julie, enjoying spring in Somerville

Over the winter I listened to Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series. I have read through the series at least twice, and enjoyed hearing Barbara Rosenblatt’s narration. “Recommended for you” brought up the first novel in her Vicky Bliss series. I realized that I’d never read The Laughter of Dead Kings, the last book in the series. Or perhaps I had, but I was still so early in my own writing career I ignored the preface, where Ms. Peters (actually Ms. Mertz, but I digress) talked about “the current now”.

Vicky Bliss is a character in a “present day” series written by Elizabeth Peters. I put quotes around present day because the first novel, Borrower of the Night, debuted in 1973. Here are the release dates of all six novels:

Borrower of the Night (1973)
Street of the Five Moons (1978)
Silhouette in Scarlet (1983)
Trojan Gold (1987)
Night Train to Memphis (1994)
The Laughter of Dead Kings (2008)

Though there are 35 years between the first and last novel’s publication dates, in book time it’s been five or six. And yet, in the last book, The Laughter of Dead Kings, Vicky, John and Schmidt all have cell phones, which places the novel in the 21st century. The author explained that in her preface.

“So how do we writers explain the inconsistencies and anachronisms? We don’t. We can’t. So please don’t bother writing to point them out to me, ignore them as I have, and place yourself in ‘the current now’. To quote my friend Margaret Maron, to whom I owe that phrase and other excellent advice, ‘Isn’t it fun being God in our separate universes, where we can command the sun to stand still, and it does?'”

As a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices she made while writing this series. The first four were published within 14 years, so keeping book time made sense. In 1994 she kept to the same book time, and the book felt like it was placed in the 70s or 80s. But writing in 2008, wrapping up the series, she felt like she needed to make a leap in the world time, but keep the book time the same. She makes comments about Egyptian tourism and artifacts in Laughter that required some 2008 context, and that may have been why.

I should also say that the series holds up. The plots are strong, more romantic suspense than mystery but that’s fine. There are passages that show the time period, but they don’t feel dated. I’m a huge Elizabeth Peters fan, and am so grateful for the joy she’s given me over the years, especially over the last few months. For other fans, you know that Jacqueline Kirby and I are becoming reacquainted now.

Every writer, including all of the Wickeds, make their own choices about the worlds they create. These choices are about locations and characters. But they are also choices about time, and how it passes.

I just turned in book #5 of the Garden Squad series. It takes place a year after Pruning the Dead. In “real” life, over 3 years will have elapsed. In writing it, I tried to eliminate as many time references as possible. I hope to write many more books in this series, and I have no intention of ever addressing the pandemic, so 2020 can’t exist. Does that mean that book 8 may skip three years? Perhaps. Or perhaps time may keep creeping forward.

I read a quote by Agatha Christie talking about her Hercule Poirot character. She said that if she’d know how popular he’d be, she would have made him younger earlier on. As a writer in 1920, she couldn’t have imagined how popular her Belgian detective would be. She definitely subscribed to “the current now”, and kept him roughly the same age while the rest of the world moved on. Happily for all of us.

The Laughter of Dead Kings is the second to last Elizabeth Peters novel published. The last (written solely by her) was A River in the Sky, an Amelia Peabody. Both of these books are really wonderful, over the top yarns spun by a master. As both a writer, and a reader, I’m a big fan. I’m also glad to know, and understand, the concept of “the current now”.

Readers, any Vicky Bliss fans? How do you feel about the concept of “the current now”?

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