REVIEW: Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
Not since I discovered the JD Robb In Death series have I enjoyed such a rich reading glom as I am now with the Amelia Peabody books. There is a particular pleasure in discovering a series well after its inception, knowing that you can glut on an enormous amount of story development in a comparatively condensed period of time (and since this series is almost as old as I am and still going strong, it's an added bonus). And thanks to Twitter and various book bloggers, authors, and fellow readers, several months ago I purchased the first Amelia Peabody book, Crocodile on the Sandbank, which proved an incredible pleasure to read. While I know there are many who are already familiar with the long-running adventures of the eccentric Amelia Peabody and her ever-growing family of Egyptologists (and cats), I cannot help but share my specific enthusiasm for this book and the series as a whole.
We first meet Amelia Peabody in Italy, 1884, where she is in the midst of a long trip, which is to include a sojourn in Egypt. A thirty-two year old heiress spinster, Amelia is frustrated because her traveling companion is too sick to proceed and having spent so much time alone taking care of her sick father, Amelia wants someone with whom to share the adventure. Therefore, it is both "fortuitous and fortunate," as Amelia says, that she meets a young woman named Evelyn Barton-Forbes, even though their first introduction occurs after Evelyn has fallen in a dead faint, right in the middle of the Forum in Rome.
A slim, athletic woman with jet-black hair and gray eyes, Amelia fancies herself plain and rather modest in bearing and character. We understand early on that this woman is anything but:
I had left my hotel that morning in considerable irritation of spirits. My plans had gone awry. I am not accustomed to having my plans go awry. Sensing my mood, my small Italian guide Piero was not silent when I first encountered him, in the lobby of the hotel, where, in common with others of his kind, he awaited the arrival of helpless foreign visitors in need of a translator and guide. I selected him from amid the throng because his appearance was a trifle less villainous than that of the others.
I was well aware of the propensity of these fellows to bully, cheat, and otherwise take advantage of the victims who employ them, but I had no intention of being victimized. It did not take me long to make this clear to Piero. My first act was to bargain ruthlessly with the shopkeeper to whom Piero took me to buy silk. The final price was so low that Piero's commission was reduced to a negligible sum. He expressed his chagrin to his compatriot in his native tongue, and included in his tirade several personal comments on my appearance and manner. I let him go on for some time and then interrupted with a comment on his manners. I speak Italian, and understand it, quite well. After that Piero and I got on admirably. I had not employed him because I required an interpreter, but because I wanted someone to carry parcels and run errands.
So it should be no surprise that when Amelia comes upon the prostrate, pale form of Evelyn in the Forum, she immediately commits to overseeing Evelyn's recovery and to providing shelter and protection to the woman, especially after understanding the series of events leading to Evelyn's collapse. For Evelyn is the once-beloved granddaughter of an earl, but she was seduced and drawn away from her home by an Italian "drawing master," who turned out to be nothing more than a fortune-hunting scoundrel. Abandoning Evelyn after burning through the money her jewels brought, the shame and destitution leave the young woman determined to take her own life – although at the last minute she could not go through with it. Convinced of her unworthiness and cowed by Amelia's kindness to her, Evelyn can scarcely believe that Amelia would want her to become her traveling companion (and she's absolutely stunned at Amelia's curiosity about the pleasure of her "ruination"), but as she will soon learn, Amelia is not ruled by social convention or a wishy-washy disposition.
Thus when Evelyn and Amelia arrive in Cairo, they secure a boat on which they will travel the Nile for the next few months. Of course the dahabeeyah must be outfitted properly for the women's comfort and cleanliness, which means that they spend a considerable time in Cairo, during which they visit the local museum, which Amelia immediately determines should be subject to more "neatness and order." At which point both Amelia and Evelyn’s lives change forever, although at the time they cannot anticipate the significance of their fateful encounter with Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, two of the most prominent Egyptologists and brothers of decidedly complementary appearance and temperament. And here I must quote a substantial section of the meeting, as it represents so perfectly the characters and relationships that form the foundation of the entire series:
We had penetrated into a back room filled with objects that seemed to be leftovers from the more impressive exhibits in the front halls of the museum – vases, bead necklaces, little carved ushebti figures, flung helter-skelter onto shelves and into cases. There were several other people in the room. I paid them little heed; in mounting indignation, I went on, "They might as least dust! Look at this!"
And, picking up a blue-green statuette from a shelf, I rubbed it with my handkerchief and showed Evelyn the dirty smudge that resulted.
A howl – a veritable animal howl – shook the quiet of the room. Before I could collect myself to search for its source, a whirlwind descended upon me. A sinewy, sun-bronzed hand snatched the statuette from me. A voice boomed in my ear.
"Madam! Do me the favor of leaving those priceless relics alone. It is bad enough to see that incompetent ass, Maspero, jumble them about; will you complete his idiocy by destroying the fragments he has left?"
Evelyn had retreated. I stood alone. Gathering my dignity, I turned to face my attacker.
He was a tall man with shoulders like a bull's and a black beard cut square like those of the statues of ancient Assyrian kings. From a face tanned almost to the shade of an Egyptian, vivid blue eyes blazed at me. His voice, as I had good cause to know, was a deep, reverberating bass. The accents were those of a gentleman. The sentiments were not.
"Sir," I said, looking him up and down. "I do not know you – "
"But I know you, madam! I have met your kind too often – the rampageous British female at her clumsiest and most arrogant. Ye gods! The breed covers the earth like mosquitoes, and is as maddening. The depths of the pyramids, the heights of the Himalayas – no spot on earth is safe from you!"
He had to pause for breath at this point, which gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for.
"And you, sire, are the lordly British male at his loudest and most bad-mannered. If the English gentlewoman is covering the earth, it is in the hope of counteracting some of the mischief her lord and master has perpetrated. Swaggering, loud, certain of his own superiority …"
My adversary was maddened, as I had hoped he would be. Little flecks of foam appeared on the blackness of his beard. His subsequent comments were incomprehensible, but several fragile objects vibrated dangerously on their shelves.
I stepped back a pace, taking a firm grip on my parasol. I am not easily cowed, nor am I a small woman; but this man towered over me, and the reddening face he had thrust into mine was suggestive of violence. He had very large, very white teeth, and I felt sure I had gotten a glimpse of most of them. A hand fell on his shoulder. Looking up, I saw Evelyn with a young man who was a slighter, beardless copy of my adversary – dark haired, blue-eyed, tall, but not so bulky.
"Radcliffe," he said urgently. "You are alarming this lady. I beg you – "
"I am not at all alarmed," I said calmly. "Except for your friend's health. He seems about to have a fit. Is he commonly subject to weakness of the brain?"
Although generically Mystery rather than Romance, anyone familiar with the meet-cute can see what this thunderous acquaintance presages. But the real joy of Crocodile on the Sandbank is traveling with the assertive, outspoken, meddling Amelia and her adopted best friend Evelyn. Before the two even leave Cairo they have to deal with the surprising appearance of Evelyn's scoundrel former lover, Alberto, and the even more surprising appearance of her long-lost cousin Lucas, whom the earl had expelled from his house and will, and who gallantly offers to serve as protection for both Amelia and Evelyn as they cruise down the Nile. And protection certainly seems necessary after Amelia awakes to find a mummy in the room she and Evelyn share!
But even the intermittent and persistent appearance of this mummy cannot squelch the thrill Amelia experiences as she travels down the Nile, and once they arrive in Amarna, where Radcliffe and Walter Emerson are excavating tombs (and Walter is translating hieroglyphics and hieratic), the real drama begins with Walter's frantic appeal to Amelia to use her amateur medical skills on his brother, who has taken severely ill with fever.
In those days, archaeologists camped inside the tombs, and as Amelia and Evelyn settle in to help with Radcliffe and fill in on the excavation and sketching of the site (Evelyn, it turns out, is quite the gifted artist, and Amelia discovers a surprisingly vigorous interest in the painstaking work of proper scientific excavation), the group faces more and more danger – the why of which is not clear, but the urgency of which is certainly compelling. A mummy, a deadly snake, a missing dragoman, even bullets threaten the group, as does Lucas's marriage proposal to Evelyn, who is most obviously falling in love with the equally smitten Walter, despite her conviction that her "shame" makes such a match impossible. And what about Alberto, whose crass and cruel treatment of Evelyn is hardly eclipsed by his insistence in Cairo that he wants another chance with her.
There is absolutely nothing about this book that did not work for me, and indeed, there are so many memorable lines and incidents that kept me dog-earning pages and laughing out loud. From Amelia's insistence that no "independent, intelligent female [should] choose to subject herself to the whims and tyrannies of a husband," to her compulsive meddling in everyone else's business (the world merely needs to be managed better, after all), to her trusty steel-shafted parasol and feminine vanity over a crimson satin dress, I adored Amelia from the first page of the book. Having her serve as narrator allows her to present a fundamentally skewed and unreliable self-portrait that makes her utterly likeable even as she says and does some unlikeable things. The slippage between her own voice and the details she narrates allows the reader to see more than one perspective at all times, which gives the book a richness of perspective we don't always see in a first person narrative.
And then there is Egypt. I confess to being a long-time addict of all things ancient Egyptian, and although I am absolutely no expert on the subject, it is clear to me early on in the book that Peters is (and indeed, she is an Egyptologist by training and, it seems, trade). Consequently, there is an authentic feel to the tombs and the archaeology and the landscape that provides an extra layer of believability to the late Victorian setting of the novel (making Amelia a "modern" woman in a way that is both unique and historically palatable). Further, the narrative neither degrades nor exoticizes Egypt or the Egyptians, even when Amelia's somewhat dogmatic insistence on the supremacy of Christianity overlays the narrative. Even when Amelia stereotypes (as she did with Piero, for example), characters are given the narrative freedom to break the typical mold, such that characters rise and fall as individuals, not types.
And the detail of the excavations during a time when some of Egypt's greatest ancient treasures were being (sometimes recklessly) uncovered by Howard Carter and the like is plentiful but never encyclopedic or intrusively boring (Peters often uses dialogue between characters to slyly educate the reader). Whether or not everything in the novel is perfectly accurate in historical terms, I felt immersed in the time and place of the setting, which is precisely what I crave in historical fiction of any genre.
I went back and re-read sections of Crocodile on the Sandbank in preparation for this gush review, and now, having reached book ten in the series, I am still impressed by how consistent and vividly true the main characters remain. Emerson (he hates his first name and is always referred to by his last) is still always one turned hair away from an explosion (an emotional nature that also harbors intense sentimentality and protectiveness), while Amelia is still pompously brilliant and loveably meddling. That she views most men as simpletons and most women as silly makes her condescension a bit more democratic than that of Emerson, who singularly despises most other archaeologists and museum officials, as well as any man who dares pay his wife undue attention. Their love, respect, and passion for one another is enduring and palpable, a well-fixed glue for the many discrete elements of the series. Evelyn and Walter provide a quiet but substantive counterpoint to Amelia and Emerson's trouble-drawing drama. Ramses, Emerson and Amelia's precocious son, may actually outstrip his parents for sheer entertainment value. And as the relationships continue to unfold and develop, and as the circle of family and friends, adversaries and enemies, expands, the series confirms my own belief that the best books engage the reader on both the intellectual and emotional levels. And that relationships, whether between people, ideas, concepts, plot points, or events, drive and vivify good fiction of any genre.
The book’s title, Crocodile on the Sandbank, comes from a poem written on an ancient papyrus Walter translates in the course of the story, and it seems to represent the danger that lies between a lover and his beloved, as well as the courage the lover shows in risking that crocodile to reach his beloved. This dynamic broadens and reverberates through the entire series, as Amelia and Emerson battle many evils to protect those they love. And from roughly the middle of the series, I think it's a winning formula. Adventure, mystery, high drama, romance, and an exciting chronicle of Egyptian and European history at the turn of the 20th century, Crocodile on the Sandbank launches a compulsively entertaining, informative, and engaging Cozy Mystery series. A