March 24, 2010

Elizabeth Peters's Crocodile on the Sandbank


Although Elizabeth Peters has written over 70 mystery novels, it is her 18 Amelia Peabody books that are particularly popular with readers. Set in late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Egypt, these books feature an intrepid amateur detective and her archaeologist husband. The breathtaking beauty and glamour of this land of the pyramids provides the exotic backdrop for what Marilyn Stasio calls “a jewel of a series.”

Elizabeth Peters is both a distinguished academic and a prize-winning author. She has won the Agatha Award for best mystery novel, the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award, and the Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement Award. Peters’s expertise in Egyptian subjects (she has a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute) provides the scholarly underpinning for these meticulously researched archeological mysteries.

The Amelia Peabody series begins with Crocodile on the Sandbank. An inheritance allows thirty-two-year-old Amelia to leave Victorian England and explore Egypt. With her companion, Evelyn, she travels up the Nile in search of adventure. The women pair up with the Emerson brothers who are excavating archeological sites. Like Rider Haggard (who is referred to at various points in the narrative, e.g. 139, 182), Peters chooses an African setting for her action-packed adventure tale. Suspense mounts as a mysterious mummy haunts the camp, and someone tries to kidnap and murder one of the adventurers.

The character of Amelia is one of the chief attractions of the novel. She is a daring, intelligent, feisty, and unconventional Victorian heroine. Stasio admits that she got hooked on the series because of
the irresistible charm of Amelia, a superbly confident woman who in 1880 boldly fled the confinements of her Victorian upbringing to find danger and romance as an Egyptologist in the mysterious Land of the Pharaohs. That, and the thrill of peering into the ancient tombs and pyramids excavated by Amelia and Emerson, her manly archaeologist husband. This was heady stuff.
In the Amelia Peabody series, Peters depicts the restricted lives of Victorian women. Amelia rebels against gender prejudices and the narrow range of possibilities open to her. Egyptian women, Peters reminds us, were treated even worse than their English counterparts during the time of the novel. Women were forced into marriage and “sold to the highest bidder like animals” (76).

Crocodile on the Sandbank is also a comic mystery, filled with witty dialogue and clever repartee. The developing relationship between Amelia and Emerson is portrayed with humour and insight.

The impenetrable mystique of the land itself is a fitting backdrop to the mysterious events of the novel. The Egyptian landscape is a haunting presence in the novel – exotic, foreign, and inscrutable. Amelia speaks for the reader when she says she would “never be free of its enchantment, never cease to desire it after it was gone” (192).

Crocodile on the Sandbank is a must-read historical mystery. As The Guardian’s Maxim Jakubowski so aptly claims, it is filled with “dastardly deeds, whirlwind romances, curious mummies and all the fun and intrigue of Egyptian excavations, with a heroine who wields a sturdy parasol rather than a magnum. Accomplished entertainment.”

Peters, Elizabeth. Crocodile on the Sandbank. 1975. New York: Warner Books, 1988.