Crocodile on the Sandbank | Amelia Peabody #1 | ISBN 9780445406513 | Mysterious Press, 2010 (first published 1975) | 5 out of 5 Points
“Set in 1884, this is the first installment in what has become a beloved bestselling series. At thirty-two, strong-willed Amelia Peabody, a self-proclaimed spinster, decides to use her ample inheritance to indulge her passion, Egyptology. On her way to Egypt, Amelia encounters a young woman named Evelyn Barton-Forbes. The two become fast friends and travel on together, encountering mysteries, missing mummies, and Radcliffe Emerson, a dashing and opinionated archaeologist who doesn’t need a woman’s help — or so he thinks.”
This book is a bit of an older vintage, since it has been written in 1975, but it still reads extremely fresh – or rather, it would, if this was not the kind of book you’re unlikely to find in publisher catalogs today. It’s a slow-burning, slowly building mystery that reads like a mix of a gothic story, an Agatha Christie novel and an Indiana Jones novelization, with a middle-aged, self-reliant heroine who has both the makings of an excellent governess and of an even more excellent army surgeon, who orders men around and is obeyed even when those men think she is being a meddling, ignorant woman, because not doing what Amelia Peabody wants is never a good idea. Nowadays, you might say she wasn’t a likable character, but good lord does Amelia Peabody not care whether anybody likes her or not. It’s not her job to be liked. In fact, as an independent heiress of her father’s if not fortune, then still rather considerable wealth, nothing is her job if she doesn’t want it to be. The job she wants is that of an archeologist, and when the opportunity arises, she grabs it by the throat and doesn’t let it go till it surrenders and gives her whatever she wants. Amelia Peabody is the kind of person I want to be, even though I might not personally fancy crouching in the sand and being burned to a crisp day in and day out. (Other than, say, Ella, who would love to become a archeologist-flavored crisp.)
FEMALE FRIENDSHIP MAKES EVERYTHING AWESOME
“Crocodile on the Sandbank” is the first book in a series 19 historical mysteries by Egyptologist Barbara Mertz aka Elizabeth Peters, and as such it sets the scene for the whole premise of ‘Amelia Peabody, archeologist adventurer’.
We first meet Amelia shortly after the death of her father, and we learn her reasons for not marrying (namely, that she’s no interested in any of her suitors and feels that most of them are out for her fortune anyway, since she’s not exactly of marrying age anymore). Instead of finding a husband and giving up all that nice money, she decides that, after years of being her father’s helpmate and then nurse, it’s time for her to indulge a little, so she decides to spend the winter sailing up the Nile, like many English people did in the 1880s. But when she comes to Rome, from where she’s supposed to sail to Alexandria, her travel companion becomes sick – and without a travel companion, there is no way even a woman in her 30s could go to Egypt (and even today that’d be kind of a bummer, wouldn’t it? Who wants to spend the whole winter all alone?). But lo and behold, on a walk through Rome she stumbles over Evelyn Barton-Forbes, an English girl sick and down on her luck after she eloped with her Italian tutor and then was left by said Italian tutor, in a city where she doesn’t know anybody, and with no way back, since her grandfather disinherited her. And so, Amelia found herself a travel companion after all, and off they go to Egypt.
I don’t usually put plot descriptions into my reviews, but I love the set-up of “Crocodile on the Sandbank” a lot, even though the beginning is a little slow, especially because the whole book is narrated by Amelia herself and her often slightly meandering style takes a little getting used to. Once you do get used to the style of the book, though, it just feels so authentic that I actually found myself thinking that the book might have been written a lot earlier than 1975 (this is again a case of a friend recommending me a book and me reading it without even looking up when it was written). At no point does the description of Amelia’s surroundings sound anything but absolutely natural, if kind of sober, except when Amelia starts waxing poetic about archeology and archeological findings. There is also a lot of jargon and a lot of the kind of professional gossip that just makes you feel like you’re there yourself, in 1880s Egypt, hearing about all those new developments and controversies in the world of archeology.
I guess ‘new developments in archeology’ should be a great segue to Emerson, but to be honest, I don’t like Emerson, so let me talk about Evelyn first, because Evelyn I do like, very much so. If anybody had tried to create a character just for me to enjoy, then I’m pretty sure that character would be very close to Evelyn. She is kind, shy, and, let’s face it, kind of fatalistic, and she faints about 8 times in the novel (seriously, so much fainting), which makes her a very stark contrast to no-nonsense, cast-iron parasol wielding Amelia, whose only reason to faint would be if she worked under the brooding Egyptian sun for 12 hours without drinking a sip of water, which is a very likely thing for her to do.
But still, Evelyn might not be physically strong, but when the going gets rough, she is very much able to hold her own and to postpone the fainting on later, when it’s save to do so. She is also amazingly loyal to Amelia – and she is also the most likely person to make sure that Amelia does not spend 12 hours under the brooding Egyptian sun without drinking some water. Evelyn doesn’t only pay back her salvation by Amelia by being her constant companion and helpmate, even in very difficult situations (did I mention that Amelia fancies herself an amateur nurse?), but by opening up to her, showing Amelia her most secret wounds, she also gets Amelia to open up herself. Theirs is one of the most beautiful female friendships I’ve read in a long while, and, let’s face it, there aren’t that many of those in fiction in general.
A DESERT FULL OF DUDES
Okay, now let’s actually talk about Emerson. God, I hate that guy. I guess he redeems himself later, and I guess his assholery plays into the whole broody-hero-trope, but just… What. An. Asshole. He basically introduces himself to Amelia by yelling at her for gently removing some dust from an extremely neglected exhibition piece in an extremely neglected museum, implying that she is a stupid woman and that she is a ‘rampageous British female at her clumsiest and most arrogant’. And then he just keeps on insulting her. I hate this guy. He might be a visionary archeologist and Egyptologist, and he does get a little less obnoxious later on – a little – and the fact that his brother Walter is a huge sweetheart makes reading about him a little more bearable – again, a little – but still, I did not grow to like him. What an ass.
It might be thanks to the rather matter-of-fact writing style of the book that I still enjoyed it so much, even with Emerson being his asshole-y self. The book never actually claims that Emerson is not an asshole, just that he and Amelia have the kinds of personalities that sometimes work well together. I didn’t need to like him to understand why Amelia eventually takes a liking to him. And to be honest, that is quite an achievement.
One thing I did like was the portrayal of Egyptian natives in the book. There was definitely a certain distance between the native Egyptian characters of the book and the English characters, but in a book set in 1880s Egypt, that is pretty much a given. However, Amelia shows great respect both for her translator Michael and for the crew of the pleasure ship she chartered, under Captain Hassan. As I already said, Amelia fancies herself an amateur nurse, and she earns quite a bit of respect among the men on her ship by stitching them up whenever there is any kind of injury. This mutual respect creates a certain loyalty between both the crew and Amelia, which later turns out to be of vital importance for the plot. And while there are several descriptions of misogynistic behavior among the Egyptian natives in this book, the fact that Radcliff ‘Let’s Yell at Strangers’ Emerson is also in this book at least makes it clear that misogynistic thoughts, actions and words aren’t a monopoly of Muslim men.
The plot of “Crocodile on the Sandbank” is a mix of travel novel and mystery, though less of the whodunit kind and more of the gothic-inspired ‘we need to figure out what is behind these strange goings on’. There is a mummy, and there is an action-packed finale involving so many characters that at some point you’re like ‘Wait, who’s where now?’, but the whole thing is a lot of fun, even though the mystery plot really only kicks in properly at the 50% mark of the book. Still, the thing that I enjoyed most wasn’t necessarily the plot, but the characters, the descriptions of 1880s Egypt (which were surprisingly less racist than I’d have imagined), and Amelia’s very palpable love of archeology. The book might be over 40 years old by now, but it honestly is a perfect example of how the distance between an author and a historical novel, especially if an author is an expert on the subject field she writes in, can transcend time differences between an author and a reader, so that it just feels so fresh and current that I’m pretty sure it’s still going to be a great read in another 40 years.
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