Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters

Years ago I read a mystery by Elizabeth Peters so I’ve been introduced to Amelia Peabody Emerson and company. Although I can’t remember which one it was, I apparently enjoyed it enough to purchase more of her books.

The flap of The Last Camel Died at Noon made it sound like it would be an intriguing mystery. And it was, but it took a long detour into Neverland. I wondered if I was reading a late-nineteenth century mystery set in England or a tame cross-over with Indiana Jones and Dan Brown. No offense to Ms. Peters. She writes much better than Brown although her stories are a bit cozier.

While the Emersons are entertaining at their palatial estate in London one rainy night, they get several uninvited guests. Arriving at one’s house unannounced is a serious no-no in Victorian England etiquette rules. First, a young man collapses in their parlor and a short time later his overbearing grandfather bursts in.

The older man implores the Emersons to search for his son and daughter-in-law who disappeared into the sands of Egypt fourteen years earlier. Against all odds, Viscount Blacktower has received a coded message that he claims proves his son is still alive.

Amelia and her husband emphatically refuse to go on a rescue mission, especially one with such sketchy details and the possibility of success is remote. They proceed to Egypt, following their own agenda, excavating a site of little archaeological significance. The grandson Reggie appears out of the blue with an entourage in tow. The Emersons are still unmoved but when Reggie is kidnapped by desert wild men while attempting to search for his uncle on his own, they feel they have no other recourse but to go in hopes of rescuing him.

After a brush with death by dehydration, the Emersons are taken to a secret oasis, hidden away, where an entire monarchy thrives with its court and castes. Amelia and her family are treated like royalty but soon find themselves caught in the middle of a civil war between brothers fighting for the throne.

At times the mystery takes a back seat to Peters’ knowledge of ancient Egyptian customs and rituals as she displays for half the novel while the Emersons are embroiled in drama, intrigue and schemes in this hidden nation. There never was an absence of suspense but oftentimes, I wondered where the story was going. When we learn the solution to the mystery, it’s almost a moot point. It’s also wrapped up a little quickly, as in one page.

Despite no page-turning excitement, The Last Camel Died at Noon is a good story, as pleasurable than any other mystery out there.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Battleship Oklahoma BB-37 by Jeff Phister with Thomas Hone and Paul Goodyear

It’s difficult to dramatize history and non-fiction, because in some cases there is more drama and action in the story that no more can be added. That much is true for just about anything written about the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. The sailors on board the USS Oklahoma when she capsized after being hit by at least eight torpedoes had no shortage of drama, action and terror. Over four hundred men lost their lives on the battleship that horrible day.

Jeff Phister and Thomas Hone teamed up with USS Oklahoma survivor Paul Goodyear write Battleship Oklahoma, BB-37, which appears to be the most comprehensive account of the tragedy from the sailors’ point of view to date.

Phister, Hone and Goodyear interviewed dozens of living survivors to recount a minute-by-minute timeline of the event starting at 7:55am when the attack began until the last man was rescued from the hull over two days later.

The authors recreate the men’s movements and their escape from the Oklahoma based on their positions in the ships. In successive chapters, they chronicle the men on deck, then below decks and finally the lower decks and the hull. When the attack began, many men fled for cover below decks as they had been trained to do during an aerial attack. Another protocol required the hatches to be sealed, which in turn sealed the fate of many men in the belly of the ship. By the time it was realized that the Japanese were using torpedoes, it was too late. The Oklahoma had been hit twice and was starting to list.

Some of the accounts get graphic as one survivor witnessed nine of his fellow sailors crushed by artillery as it rolled out of its spot when the Oklahoma tilted. Others watched friends drown, unable to save them. Two men were asphyxiated by toxic fumes created by cutting torches when a rescue crew ignored warnings of cork lining the room where the men were trapped.

It took over two years to right the Oklahoma and get her afloat so she could be towed into dry dock. During the latter months of her salvage as she was being patched to pump water out of her lower decks, the crews had to deal with the bodies of the sailors submerged for so long. Each one had to be treated with utmost care. Of the 429 who died, 380 still remain unidentified. Thirteen bodies have never been found.

With advances being made in DNA research and testing, efforts continue to identify the fallen sailors so they can be given a proper burial.

Battleship Oklahoma BB-37 is moving tribute to all those aboard her on the day in infamy.