Street of the Five Moons, by Elizabeth Peters

>> Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Elizabeth Peters, whether under that name or under her Barbara Michaels pseudonym, is one of my favourite authors, and even rivals JAK when it comes to her books being comfort reads. I love all her books, but among my favourites are those in the Vicky Bliss series.

The one I reread recently was Street of the Five Moons, which is the first one in which both our protagonists are together. You see, both appear in earlier books but on their own (John has a scene-stealing cameo in The Camelot Caper, while Vicky is the heroine in Borrower of the Night), but they don't meet until the events of SOTFM.

When a masterful fake of a famous piece of jewelry shows up in a dead man's pocket, along with an address in Rome, Vicky is off to Italy to investigate. While there she encounters forgers, nobility, and a dashing art thief with a healthy sense of self-preservation. Her suspicions of a criminal conspiracy put her life in danger, and test her intelligence and courage.
Oh, what fun! Romance, adventure and a fascinating plot, narrated with Peters' wonderful witty and humorous touch. A B+.

Vicky Bliss is hard at work (on her sensational novel) at the Munich National Museum, when her boss, Herr Professor Doktor (in whatever order these are supposed to go) Schmidt comes in in a state of extreme excitement. No one who's read Borrower of the Night is going to be surprised that Scmidt is in a state of extreme excitement, but this time, the excitement is justified. A man has been found dead on the streets of Munich and sewn inside his clothes, he had a perfect replica of the Charlemagne talisman, one of the National Museum's treasures.

Suspecting that a plot to substitute fakes for the Museum's artifacts might be afoot, and always on the lookout for any excitement in which his darling Vicky might apply her sleuthing skills, Schmidt sends her to investigate. No one is more surprised than Vicky when she actually finds what might be a clue, one that she deducts points to Rome. And so Vicky goes off to Rome, to investigate, according to Schmidt, to pretend to investigate and actually get a nice vacation with an expense account, according to Vicky herself. But the perfunctory investigative actions her conscience insists she make have unexpectedly suspicious results, and so Vicky gets embroiled in an adventure that includes a sexy, conscienceless thief, assorted Italian aristocrats, temperamental mistresses and a seemingly mediocre artist.

Making me actually enjoy a caper-type story is probably one of the biggest tricks an author can pull. I tend to prefer character-driven stories, rather than those in which the characters are running around all over the place, crossing and double-crossing each other. Well, Peters pulls the trick here, probably because all the running around doesn't make her skimp on the character development, and those characters are just amazing.

John is one of my favourite characters in all fiction, but I like Vicky just as much. I think what I love best about the way Peters writes them is that both are wonderfully honest about themselves. They know themselves, and they refuse to indulge in any kind of self-deception, never, ever trying to convince themselves that they have honourable motives when they are being moved by self-interest. For instance, right at the beginning, when Schmidt shows up with the fake talisman and suggests Vicky go to Rome to investigate, Vicky doesn't even try to convince herself that she's doing some kind of important job. She knows it's a very long shot, but well, she can use a vacation, and Rome on an expense account is too good to resist. Both she and John were very refreshing in this respect.

They also don't take themselves too seriously, which makes for some funny, funny scenes, full of witty banter. And between that banter, and the teasing and the playing, we get the beginnings of a lovely romance. Vicky and John "get" each other. They are very different in certain aspects (foremost among them that while John's not particularly bothered by "victimless" crimes and is of the "oh, all I'm hurting is the finances of some big museums and dishonest collectors. The former are insured and the latter deserve it" school of thought, Vicky's ethics are much more rigid), but they understand each other completely. These two are seldom serious, but you do realize some very real feelings are starting to develop.

Apart from the characters, the plot is actually pretty interesting, with some beautiful locations (Rome! Beautiful villa on its outskirts!) and a very developed sense of place. There's also the way everything is narrated, which makes even the most prosaic descriptions hilarious. Elizabeth Peters rules! ;-)

I can't wait to reread the rest of the series, especially the next-to-last book, Trojan Gold, which is my favourite. I've already started with Silhouette in Scarlet, which comes before it and I'm enjoying it enormously.


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