Title: Crocodile on the Sandbank
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Genre: Historical Mystery
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in the Amelia Peabody series.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Thirty-one-year-old Victorian gentlewoman Amelia Peabody has not only inherited her father’s fortune, but she is also blessed with his strong will as well. Now she’s headed for Cairo, accompanied by a girl with a tarnished past, to indulge her passion for Egyptology. Little did she know that murder and a homicidal mummy lay in wait for her.
Why did we read this book: Thea had heard a lot of good things about Elizabeth Peters from Li over at her blog, and so decided to pick up the first Amelia Peabody book (the unanimously high recommendations on amazon helped too). And, wouldn’t you know it, Thea loved the series SO much, she immediately mailed a copy to Ana…and here we are.
Thea: My dear, dear Peabody. I think I’m in love. (Of course, I wouldn’t tell Amelia that since she’d bash me over the head with her parasol and convince me that I’m seriously ill.) From the very opening line of Crocodile on the Sandbank, I was a goner. Amelia Peabody is quirky, sensible (though with a flair for the dramatic and sensational–though she would never admit that), and a delightful narrator. I absolutely adored this book, immediately running out to buy the next four books in the series. If you took Miss Marple, Indiana Jones, Rick O’Connell, and stuck them in a blender, then made the result in the form of a thirty year old Victorian Era woman…well, you’d sort of have Amelia Peabody. Of course, then you’d have to throw in a breathtaking knowledge of Egyptian antiquity, witty dialogue, and hilarious characterizations.
Ana: And Romance Thea, Romance!
Honestly, I am forever puzzled about how Thea finds these books I never heard of before but I am ever so grateful the she starts campaigning for me to read them. I was freaking out earlier this week because I had to read and review a book for today but I had tried out three romance novels and all three turned out to be such meh reads I couldn’t even be bothered with a review. Then Tuesday’s post arrived and with it, Amelia. Such an odd-looking little book that was. I opened it, and The Amelia Hurricane burst into my life to stay. My darling, darling Peabody. I think I am in love too.
On the Plot:
Amelia Peabody is a thirty-ish “spinster”. Completely sensible, Amelia knows that she is no great beauty, but has been gifted with keen intellect and no delusions of grandeur. When her elderly father passes away, Amelia suddenly becomes a woman of means–as he, unbeknownst to Amelia and the rest of the family, has invested his money and has made a tidy sum, which he leaves entirely to Amelia in his will. Tired of grubbing family members and dull England, Amelia turns to adventure–fueled by her newfound archaeological passion, she decides to spend the season in Egypt. Before she makes it to Cairo, however, Amelia stops in Italy to procure supplies and other means for her trip–and it is here that she meets the unfortunate Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a beautiful English Rose who has fallen (literally) after being seduced by her vile Italian art instructor lover. Touched by the honesty and determination Evelyn shows her, Amelia adopts the young lady as her companion and together they set off for their grand adventure along the Nile.
Once in Cairo, Peabody and Evelyn make the acquaintance of the renowned archaeological team, Radcliffe and Walter Emerson. Immediately, Evelyn and Walter (the younger Emerson) hit it off, and young love begins to bloom. Peabody and Emerson (the elder), hit it off in their own way–Emerson is a very loud, very opinionated (but highly intelligent and competent) man. Upon their first meeting, he berates Peabody for handling the antiquities (of course the sensible Peabody was not mishandling them, contrary to Emerson’s shouting accusations). Amelia and Evelyn soon part ways with the Emersons, and set sail on a dahabeeyah down river (apparently, the best way to travel in Egypt). Fate reunites the Emerson brothers with our intrepid duo, as Radcliffe has fallen ill, and Amelia is quite the amateur doctor. Together, the four proceed with the Emerson excavation–only to be terrorized at night by a ghostly mummy…
Thea: If you couldn’t tell by my “First Impressions” section, I love this book. The writing style is flawless–I cannot count the number of times I laughed out loud reading some of Amelia’s descriptions and thoughts. As the book is actually Amelia’s memoirs of the event, everything is filtered through her delightful narrative as she addresses her audience, the anonymous dear reader.
Crocodile on the Sandbank is also rich in Egyptian history, and cleverly set in 1884. It is abundantly clear through each descriptive passage and each archaeological theory discussed in this book that Ms. Peters is no slouch–upon examining her biography, I discovered Ms. Peters has a Ph.D from the University of Chicago in Egyptology (which she earned at the age of 23). This author’s expertise in Egyptology never comes across as stuffy or academic though; Amelia’s Egypt is vibrant and completely winsome. Whether she be crawling on hands and knees in dark, musty pyramids or painstakingly preserving an artifact, Egypt becomes wholly alive–I felt as though I was right beside Amelia as she gradually unravelled the mystery of the moaning mummy.
Which brings me to the one flaw in the book–if you can call it a flaw. The mystery part of the story, while stumping Amelia and her cohorts, is not very complex or difficult to solve. That is not to say it is poorly written! No, even though I had deduced the villain(s) fairly early in the story, the fun was in watching Amelia, Emerson, Evelyn and Walter try to capture the fiend. I loved every second of it.
Ana: Delightful and funny from the get go, Crocodile on the Sandbank was a surprise. Everything works in this book, from the narrative by one of the funniest, unconventional “voices” I have ever had the pleasure to read to the description of Egyptian life and archaeology. The mystery of the moaning mummy is the plotline that set other things in motion and even though not very complex, it still came as a surprise when we learn the “how” and the “why”. But really, what made the book for me? The romance between Peabody and Emerson.
Even though the romance is presumably not at heart of things, it is still what gives heart to Crocodile on the Sandbank (the title itself is a line from an Egyptian love poem) . There is plenty of adventure and humour but you will be rooting for Walter and Evelyn to finally be able to be together and for Emerson and Peabody to realise how right they are for each other. In other words, The Crocodile on the Sandbank has the best of all worlds and with a fantastic romantic sub-plot that is organic and believable.
In fact, with this book came a realisation. I have been reading more and more books that are not tagged as Romance Novels and some of them have romance in it. I realise how the engine for those work in a way that sets things in motion in a very organic and non-contrived way. I unfortunately, have come to realise that many of my beloved romance novels fail to do just that. I admit that I read Romance Novels for the emotional factor that is so important to me but in no way, I think the emotional factor must come at the expense of plot, characterisations, world-building or historical believability.
I have said this before, I can and I will suspend disbelief, but only when there are factors to counter-balance that.
The more good non-romance novels I read, the more demanding I become about the romance novels. In my mind, this is a good thing but it also means that out of say, each 5 romance novels I read, at least 3 are proving to be DNF or low rated books. You will start noticing that more and more in my reviews from now on.
The gist of it? The higher expectations for better romance novels. Is this too much to ask, I wonder?
Phew. How digressing was that? But it only proves how good Crocodile on the Sandbank is: that it ignites such ponderings about books in general whilst being great fun.
On the Characters:
Thea: This is where Crocodile truly shines–in its eccentric, intensely lovable characters. As you probably have surmised, I have something of a crush on Amelia Peabody. Ever so practical–and yet truly a romantic for all her practicality–Amelia masterfully navigates Egypt with her own wit, common sense, and bullying approach. Even though Amelia is highly intelligent and fully understands she is no great beauty, she never comes across as cynical or self-pitying, and her honesty is a welcome breath of fresh air. Plus…she’s just hilarious.
The other characters are brilliantly done as well, and over the course of a single book have grown close to my heart. The beautiful, delicate Evelyn, though prone to fainting and other silliness as a true lady of her time is tempered with her brutal self-reproach and determination to be completely forthright with everyone about her foolish love affair. Her strength is touching, as is her devotion to Amelia; the camaraderie between these two very different women is a delight to read. Evelyn is well matched with the gentlemanly scholar Walter Emerson–both are young and hopelessly idealistic.
The real treat, however, is with Radcliffe Emerson (or, as Amelia calls him, Emerson). Abrasive, LOUD, and completely driven by his passion for archaeology, Amelia finds her match in the boisterous big baby. The two are perfectly matched against each other, with Amelia’s level headedness and Radcliffe’s short temper. Watching their relationship unfold is a true delight–even writing this review and thinking about both of them I have a huge smile on my face. They had me from when Amelia states she can only ever think of him as “Emerson”, and Emerson only ever calls Amelia “Peabody” (except, of course, when he’s truly annoyed and refers to her by her first name).
Ana: Amelia Peabody goes traipsing around the world being a nosy busybody, poking people with her parasol, and driving some of them crazy. Amelia could have been somewhat irritating (and I am sure some will think so) but she is so captivating and funny, it is a complete joy to read her thoughts.
She is one of those Victorian ladies, out of the first wave of feminism with the suffragist movement and the like, believing that women have an equal standing in society. She believes she would never marry because she could not stand to be ruled by a man nor could she stand a man who would be ruled by her. And believe you me, this is a very reasonable concern to the meddlesome, strong, rather cynical Amelia.
She is ever so peculiar and eccentric and I am completely in love with her. I love how cynical she can be – like, for example when she thinks about Evelyn’s kindness and truthfulness which “both, I have found, are inconvenient character traits” . Of course, she is as much as loyal and truthful as Evelyn is and their friendship and camaraderie is really sweet to read about.
Now. Radcliff Emerson. Dear, dear Emerson. I am in love….no, wait. I am not. I adore you and you are perfect for Peabody but honestly, a hero could not be more “wrong“ than you.
Hairy, big, LOUD, obnoxious, many times behaving like a demented child. There are outbursts of unjust accusations at Peabody as if everything is the woman’s fault given her interfering habits, ordering everyone about in HIS excavation site, there are cries of despair at other people’s way of dealing with antiques; there are times when he gets so mad that foam appear around his mouth and beard. And yet, there could not possibly have anyone else for Peabody – these two when put together in a room? Come on baby, light my fire. There are sparks, yelling and it’s clear that while driving each other crazy they are also having the time of their lives and they are PERFECT for each other. To root for them and for those moments when they are together was the most fun I had with a couple in ages.
Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:
Thea: What else can I say? I loved this book. Really loved it. Since reading this first Amelia Peabody mystery, I have finished books 2 and 3 with the same verdict. Amelia is a keeper, and I cannot wait to read other books by the very talented Ms. Peters!
Ana: Crocodile on the Sandbank is a delightful, funny read. Perfect to wind down, by spending some time with a few of the quirkiest characters I ever read. I had a huge smile on my face whilst reading and the very same smile reappears every time I think of Amelia Peabody (and Radcliff Emerson).
Thea: The very last scene on the dahabeeyah involving my two favorite characters. I won’t spoil it…but it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside (and makes me laugh at the same time).
Ana: : It has to be all of the interactions between Peabody and Emerson – it is so wrong that it is right. I love how she, for example, ogles his body and claims it’s because it would be “interesting to a student of anatomy” or all of the “almost” scenes. When they get trapped inside a tomb and he throws himself at her to protect her from falling rocks and at first she is hopeful that he is embracing her for other purposes only to dismiss it as “absurd notions” . Or how they have two interrupted conversations that could have led to …..something else. The best? The one that Thea alludes to above. I keep replaying THAT one in my mind ever since I read it – it is just so heart-warming and hilariously funny at the same time – again so wrong that it is so right.
Thea: Ms. Peters has been praised for her authenticity in creating Egypt of the 1880s; and I certainly must concur. Not that I know much of anything about Egypt at the turn of the century, but everything feels incredibly authentic–from the customs and speech of the people, to even the simple logistics of supplies and travel. This is a very smart, very entertaining novel…and how I wish I was on Amelia and Evelyn’s dahabeeyah!
Ana: Crocodile reminded me of two other great books set in Egypt that are funny, romantic and adventurous: Mara, Daughter of the Nile (reviewed here) and Mr Impossible by Loretta Chase (Rupert!) . I highly recommend both.
Thea: 8 Excellent!
Reading Next: It by Stephen King