Jul 9, 2010

Crocodile on the Sandbank and Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters

Crocodile on the SandbankCurse of the Pharaohs
It has happened at last – I have finally made Ms Amelia Peabody’s acquaintance, and I’m happy to report that we got along splendidly. Crocodile on the Sandbank and Curse of the Pharaohs are the first two books in the Amelia Peabody series – a series of historical mysteries set in Egypt in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries involving archaeology, adventures, the absurdities of Victorian mores, romance, and a good deal of humour. When we first meet Ms Peabody, she’s a strong-willed, unconventional, parasol-carrying Lady of Independent Means who’s using her fortune to travel through Europe and North Africa. Her recently deceased father, a scholar, gave her a much more complete education than what was customary for women at the time, and this inspired her interest in ancient history and art.

In Rome, Amelia Peabody makes the acquaintance of one Ms Evelyn Barton-Forbes. Evelyn is, as Amelia soon discovers, a Fallen Woman. But Amelia, an early feminist, doesn’t believe in such a concept, and is therefore not in the least inclined to shun her new friend. Crocodile on the Sandbank won me over immediately by having two Victorian ladies talk about sexuality before the end of the second chapter. And no, this doesn’t mean the novels are historically inaccurate, as it’s absurd to assume that the subject was never privately discussed between curious ladies at the time. It’s just that, for obvious enough reasons, the literature of the period couldn’t really report these exchanges. This is actually one of the reasons why I’m a fan of historical fiction: it can tell us all the things that contemporary writers were forced to be silent about.

It’s a little difficult to sum up the plot of the second book, Curse of the Pharaohs, without spoiling the first, so I’m going to refrain from doing so. I’ll just tell you that both novels are set in Egypt; that the mysteries involve mummies, ancient curses, skulduggery, or all of the above; that they feel a bit like adventure stories, much more so than whodunits; and that the main characters, Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson, are an absolute delight. With this out of the way, I’ll go on to explain what I like about the series in general without spoiling the plot of either book.

Both books are narrated in the first person, and Amelia’s voice is one of this series’ greatest strengths: she’s witty, sarcastic and very personable, and her ironic and confidential tone immediately draws readers in. Take this paragraph, for example, which opens Curse of the Pharaohs:
The events I am about to relate began on a December afternoon, when I had invited Lady Harold Carrington and certain of her friends to tea.
Do not, gentle reader, be misled by this introductory statement. It is accurate (as my statements always are); but if you expect the take that follows to be one of pastoral domesticity, enlivened only by gossip about the country gentry, you will be sadly mistaken.
I also liked the fact that while Amelia Peabody is unconventional, she’s realistically so. Amelia B. Edwards, the real-life Victorian/Edwardian Egyptologist and writer who likely inspired the character, is given a nod in the second book. Peabody is clearly written in the tradition of the women travellers and science pioneers of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, women about whom I’d love to read more.

The fact that these are first person narratives plays an important role in something I want to give some attention to - the colonial power dynamics in the books. These stories are set during the height of colonialism, and at a time when archaeology often amounted to little more than looting. Historical accuracy demands that the stories reflect these power relationships, and a first person narrator can be, I imagine, quite difficult to write in a novel with this kind of historical setting. The series only works if we distrust Amelia sometimes; if we don’t take her every observation at face value. I imagine that Elizabeth Peters didn’t want to write a protagonist with unnaturally progressive sensibilities, but she also didn’t want to simply evoke a colonial world without addressing the questions that it raises.

Peters handled this cleverly, I thought, by writing several alternative voices into the narrative. Amelia Peabody, for all her liberal attitudes, is a Victorian woman, and in many ways she perpetuates and takes advantage of the artificial power relationships that set her home country in a position of dominance over Egypt. But there are always others voices that draw attention to what’s at stake in the story; voices which makes it possible for readers to believe in the narrative while still being critical of its power dynamics. This allows a complex world to emerge, a world in which we get to see more than just a single perspective. For example:
“Such are the superstitions of paganism. Poor ignorant people!”
Emerson could not let such a statement pass. “I can show you equal ignorance in any modern English village,” he snapped. “And you can hardly call the creed of Mohammed paganism, Sayce; it worships the same God and the same prophets you do.”
Also worthy of note is the fact that Peters doesn’t cast all Egyptian characters in fixed or stereotypical roles. They’re allowed to have voices and to be many different things, including simply human beings. I don’t mean to say that Peters’ efforts are flawless and render the narrative completely unproblematic. I’m sure that there’s a lot that I, a privileged white European girl with very limited knowledge of turn-of-the-century Egypt, must have missed. But I was happy to notice that Elizabeth Peters seems to at least have made an effort and given these things some thought. The first Amelia Peabody book was published in 1975, and I look forward to seeing how Peters continues to handle the topic of colonialism as the series progresses. I like to think, perhaps optimistically, that there’s a bit more awareness of these issues now than there was a few decades ago, and I wonder whether this impacted Peters’ writing as she continued with the series.

However, for all the fun I had with Crocodile on the Sandbank and Curse of the Pharaohs, not everything was roses. My first complaint was that the ending of the first book felt a little rushed: I’d like to have seen what happens suddenly in its final chapters develop over the course of, I don’t know, about four books or so. But it could merely be that Certain Other Mystery Writers have completely spoiled me for these things.

Secondly, and more disappointingly, the characterisation can be a little thin when it comes to the secondary characters. This is especially the case in Curse of the Pharaohs, which is set like a country-house mystery. The main suspects mostly have a single defining trait, which is very often their nationality (illustrated by an accent, the copious use of American slang, or a tendency to impose of German syntax on English sentences). Other than that, they didn’t truly feel like individuals, which kept me from being as invested in the mystery itself as I might have otherwise been. The fact that the main characters do have some depth to them helps balance things out, but I’d have been happier if the rest of the characters had also felt like real people.

Finally, I have to confess I remain on the fence when it comes to how the series deals with gender. If on the one hand there are brilliant moments, like Amelia’s reaction to Evelyn’s story, on the other hand there are also quite a few essentialist statements about both genders, made both by Amelia herself and by other characters. I think these are for the most part just banter between Radcliffe and Amelia, and therefore not to be taken seriously, but they still irk me. And more worryingly, I was a little baffled to see Amelia say this of another lady:
She was tightly corseted, and the extent of shoulder and throat exposed was, in my opinion, almost indecent. The waxy white flowers crowning her upswept hair were also inappropriate. (I do not apologise for this digression into fashion. Not only is it intrinsically interesting, but it shows something of the woman’s character.)
Oh Amelia. Why? And no, it’s not that I’m not making allowances for the fact that she’s a Victorian – it’s that this contradicts some of her previous actions and statements. Plus history has less to do with it than we’d like, as the idea that exposing too much cleavage or too much leg “says something of a woman’s character” is still alive and well. Mostly I was disappointed to find several moments where Amelia’s commitment to subverting the gender norms of Victorian society seemed to vanish into thin air. But then again, perhaps I’ll be generous and believe that this is meant to tell us something about the cracks and contradictions of the world and the historical moment which she inhabited.

I didn’t love Amelia Peabody quite as unabashedly as I love Harriet Vane or Mary Russell, but then again, that’s quite difficult. This is a different kind of series anyway – perhaps a little lighter and less complex, but also much more humorous. The Amelia Peabody books are fun, unputdownable mystery/adventure stories with (despite Those Moments) feminist leanings. And that’s more than enough for me.

They read it too:

Crocodile on the Sandbank
Age 30+: A Lifetime of Books
The Book Stacks
The Book Smugglers (guest review)

Curse of the Pharaohs
Kay’s Bookshelf

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. "a series of historical mysteries set in Egypt in the late nineteenth..." Sounds very intriguing to me! :)

  2. First I'd never even heard of these books, so I guess I can be happy to have learned something today! And they both sounded just precious and right up your alley until they started to have conflicting messages. Which is confusing. Don't blame you for your hesitation.

  3. These sound fun. I love the first exchange you mention between her and Evelyn, but that comment about the clothing showing a bit of her character - gag. Not a fan of that!

  4. Thanks Nymeth..I hadn't heard of this series. I'm now quite curious.

  5. Amelia is a very interesting character to me. She is unorthodox, but also can be judgemental. She is passionate within her relationship but I am sure would have been seen as quite controlled to the observer.

    I have been reading this series for a few years now (and have reviews of quite a few of them on my blog) and find myself enjoying them, but at times a little frustrated, for example, Amelia doesn't seem terribly maternal at times.

    My favourites books in this series though are when Ramses gets a little older. Sigh.

  6. I've been meaning to read Elizabeth Peters for ages. I was obsessed with Agatha Christie and ancient Egypt when I was in Middle School. The Amelia Peabody mysteries seem like a great way to marry the two loves!

  7. This is one of my all time favorite mystery series. I can't think when I actually read CROCODILE ON A SANDBANK for the first time. Probably about 1980-ish. I've read it several times since. The series continues today and I will admit that I am a number of books behind.

    I suspect some of your concerns about the length of the story arc were dictated by what the publisher would accept in 1975, which after all is 35 years ago. Elizabeth Peters (who has also written as Barbara Michaels and is actually named Barbara Mertz) holds a doctorate in Egytology. She is an interesting character in her own right.

    Glad these worked well enough for you. I know that they are not perfect or not for every reader, but I think they are great for showing how a strong female character can perservere with a little humor thrown in.

    Enjoyed your post, Ana!

  8. Everyone seems to love Elizabeth George's work, so I'm really not sure why I haven't taken the plunge yet. It sounds like something I need to rectify soon.

  9. There is something about a strong, witty, unique narrator that really gets me excited. Sounds like I should pick this one up.

  10. I have a few of the later books in this series. It just sounds so interesting! Of course, I won't read those books until the prior ones are in my possesion.

  11. As I am not a big mystery reader, I have not read these books. But I have heard of them, and have always wondered what I would make of them. Since reading your reviews, I think I might possibly try the first book to see if it would be to my liking. You make them sound a lot more complex than a lot of the older mysteries out there.

  12. You know, I think the conflicting liberalism and conservatism is just realistic human nature. I'm often struck when hanging out with my grandmother, how one moment she'll say something very liberal and astute about, for example, the horrendous way in which the Hawaiian natives were exploited by white settlers (she lived in Hawaii for most of her life). And an hour or so later, in the same conversation, she'll make a racist comment about the Chinese folks in the islands. People are just complicated. It seems realistic to me that Peabody would simultaneously espouse liberal ideals, and sometimes contradict them.

    And I don't know, I think wearing a low-cut dress does say SOMETHING about a person's character - that they're not overly shy about their body, for example, or (in the Victorian context) that they're willing to be a bit daring. Or, depending on the way in which they wear the dress, it could mean that they're trying to please/displease someone else, or to seem more grown-up/younger/more vivacious than they really feel, I suppose. But I agree that the way Amelia Peabody says it implies moralism.

  13. I tried these several years ago but couldn't actually get on with themm so it's interesting to read your comments. I think I prefer to get my Victorian women travellers from life - Mary Kingsley's 'Travels in West Africa', for example.

  14. You've captured the books and Amelia quite well. Peabody is so funny and so clueless sometimes. The series is a little uneven, but if you stick with it, it gets better and better. I'm about halfway through and still interested.

    One tip though -- I could read Harriet Vane one book after the other in quick succession and then read them again. Peabody is best read one every 4 or 6 six weeks (or longer) because I think she could get tiresome.

  15. Realistically unconventional historical characters are so rare in fiction, it's always a happy surprise to find one.

  16. Love the sound of this! I really enjoy mysteries, and a little bit of humour is a great addition. Wonderful review!

  17. Melody: What else does one need to say, right? ;)

    Sandy: I'd definitely still recommend them anyway, though! It was more a minor annoyance (because I expected more of the character) than a major issue.

    Amy: It's disappointing, isn't it? Especially because they're the exact same thing!

    Wisteria: It's well worth reading!

    Marg: I can definitely see that about her. You're not the first to tell me that Ramses becomes quite an interesting character in his own right. I look forward to meeting his older self!

    Amanda: I'm pretty sure you'll love these, then :D

    Kay: True, the time of publication might have had something to do with it. I definitely did enjoy these enough to continue with the series :)

    Kathy: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Trisha: You should!

    April: Ha, I was on the same boat until very recently - I found three of the later books at a bargain sale and couldn't resist. Actually, I still can't read them, because they're like books 5, 6 and 8, and I still don't have 3, 4 or 7 :P

    Zibilee: There's definitely plenty more than the mystery here!

    Emily: You're absolutely right that those contradictions are realistic, but to me that makes them all the more worth examining - I love discussing books exactly because it so often give me the opportunity to discuss life :) I'm not sure if Peters meant to write Amelia as a realistically contradictory person (as I said, this would especially make sense of an early feminist Victorian) or if she was just revealing her own flaws and biases as a human being. Either way, what was a little disappointing to me (because it kept me from loving the character as much as I'd like to), and what I thought was worth talking about, was that Amelia didn't realise that judging Evelyn for having pre-marital sex and judging this lady for her "inappropriately" low-cut dress are part of the exact same process of forcing women into neat little boxes of respectability and punishing them if they fail to conform. And yes, in this case, when she says "something of her character" she does mean it negatively and moralistically - as in, she's a "loose woman" and therefore evil. Sadly the rest of the novel goes on to reinforce these stereotypes, which was what let me down - particular as there were other examples along the same vein in the book.

    Katherine Langrish: Adding Mary Kingsley to my wishlist!

    Beth: I'm glad to hear it gets better! And yes, I can see how it would work better in small doses. I could never have enough of Harrier or Mary Russell, but I think I COULD have enough of Amelia :P

    Trapunto: It always makes me happy too. I imagine that they're quite difficult to write.

    Emidy: Then these are right up your alley :)

  18. These books are so fun! I've only read a few but will be reading more. I like the covers you posted :o)

  19. Yay! You read them! I thought you weren't going to. :)

    It's interested that you point out the fashion thing, because Peters/Michaels always has some passage in her books where the main characters judge the morality and character of people based on their looks. It's kind of always bothered me, too.

    Just wait until you get to Ramses' storyline--that's when the series really starts getting juicy. Or so I've heard.

  20. Terri: I love those covers too! And I look forward to reading the rest of the series :)

    Heidenkind: The ones I won't read are the 3 later books in the series that I own, as sadly they're not in order. They're like books 5, 7 and 9... but they were cheap! How could I leave them there? :P Anyway, I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds that trait of Amelia's off-putting. And I look forward to meeting older Ramses!

  21. I know that a lot of people have a problem with historical fiction, but you have hit upon the very reason that I enjoy it so; contemporary fiction could often say so little.

    It is fascinating to read about private conversations and trysts that could never have been publicly acknowledged at the time.

  22. Yay, I'm glad you are enjoying these! Curse of the Pharaoh is not the best book in the series - I sometimes skip it when I'm doing a reread of the series. The Mummy Case is better because Ramses is around more, and Lion in the Valley is even better because...I can't tell you! But it is better.

    Also, if it cheers you up, I think Peters definitely means to write Amelia as a realistically contradictory person. There are several characters and events that come up later on that highlight the difference between Amelia's professed values and the way she actually behaves. So do not fear! :p

  23. Nymeth: Oh no, hope I didn't come across as implying that those contradictions aren't worth talking about! I think they're fascinating too, and I see what you're saying about it being disappointing when the "master narrative" doesn't seem to acknowledge Amelia's biases. I just think, sometimes, that readers and writers get fixated on whether a given action of a fictional person is "in character" and forget that real people do strange & contradictory things all the time. Which I think is an interesting tendency, as well...hope that clarifies my thinking!

  24. Ha! I just picked up a copy of Crocodile on the Sandbank at the UBS last week--I'm so glad I did now! Sounds like fun--great analysis here.

  25. Egypt~ You have me interested.
    I found another great author here, thanks!

  26. Oooooh these sound fun :D Dammit! Another series to add to the wishlist!! You know, its funny because the only complaints you had are the only complaints I had about one of my favorite books I remember having read in the last couple of years, Voodoo Season...WAY too rushed of an ending and secondary characters that just aren't developed enough. I wonder if this is ever something that the publisher forces?? Like finish it up quick or if it's just sloppy editing or maybe just a weakness of the authors writing...who knows. Still sounds like a fantastic series.

    And I'm totally with you on Historical Fic in that one of it's best assets is that it allows us to experience what the authors felt they couldn't write about during those times. Like sexuality. Surely it was discussed in the 19th century among women, just behind closed doors, sadly :( What I would love to find is some of the authors who DID write about it back then...because surely someone did. Unfortunately, it's probably uninformed men like the Marquis de Sade. But it would be interesting to see if there were any women that wrote on the topic in the 19th century underground. Do you know of anyone?

  27. I'm really glad that you liked these books as I have been eyeing up this series due to reviews on Chasing Bawa's blog. Even more of a reason to go out and get these now! :o)

  28. How many times have I said, "I've never even heard of this before"? Well, add another to the list. I really think I would enjoy these! If I'm reading you correctly, despite their problems, you very much enjoyed them. I'm especially interested in the way they deal with colonialism. As much as I've enjoyed the little Agatha Christie that I've read, that is one thing that stuck in my craw. You know, it's one of those things that you have to remember the perspective of the times, but that you still can't help be driven a bit mad about.

  29. This does sound like a fun series. I like that Amelia Peabody breaks convention. I'm sure it makes for an interesting character.
    Great review as usual.

  30. I've only read the first of this series, but I really enjoyed it. I think Amelia Peabody is great fun! A lot of people disliked (or, if not disliked, were annoyed by) Soulless by Gail Carriger because the main character was pretty clearly based on Amelia.

  31. Nymeth,

    Totally off-topic . . . I need your help. I've been looking for a post you wrote about children's books (a book *about* children's books) in which you listed the 4 characteristics children love in a book. I'm thinking flying, some kind of magic and small people were 3 of them. Maybe it wasn't things they love . . . ugh. It should have been around May of 2009 because I had just finished Gossamer by Lois Lowry and it had all the characteristics you mentioned. I haven't figured out how to go back to a certain month on your blog. Can you help me out?

  32. This sounds like a series I need to read. I love mysteries set in Egypt!

  33. Welcome to the joy! I adore Amelia (perhaps especially when her blind spots appear, because I love Elizabeth Peters and I know she is being ironic).

    Also - dear me, I hate to agree with this (because of my love for EP), but you are quite right: the secondary characters are often rather sloppily done. And that continues throughout the series, and sometimes makes the later books a bit tedious and predictable.

  34. I do love this series -- I love Amelia and find her exchanges with Emerson quite hilarious. She is so contradictory, I agree, but I find it makes her into a 'real' character. Also, the Egypt & archaeology background is endlessly fascinating to me, especially since the author is an expert in the field.

  35. Tea Lady: Yes! You put it perfectly :)

    Jenny: I'm very happy to hear that the rest of the series will highlight this! Sadly, I own Lion in the Valley, but I can't read it yet because I don't have the rest of the series - book :P

    Emily: No, don't worry! I can definitely see your point, and yes, what bugged me was that the "master narrative" never acknowledged it. But Jenny says that the rest of the series does, so it's all good :P

    Katy F: It is a lot of fun! I hope you'll enjoy it :)

    Veens: You're welcome! I do love Egypt as a setting.

    Chris: I think it's probably tricky to find that, especially as women writing AT ALL was still an issue back then. We should ask Sarah Waters - if it exists, she's sure to know ;)

    Boof: I do think you'd enjoy it :D

    Debi: Yeah, I can definitely see how that would be an issue with Christie. I think Peters managed to balance things well overall.

    Naida: Thank you! And yes, it definitely does :)

    Aarti: She is great fun! And I didn't know that about Soulless! I wonder if this would make me like the series more or less.

    Nancy: The book is Feeling Like a Kid, and I DMed you the link on Twitter :)

    Bookmagic: I can't say I'd read any before these, but I think I love them too :P

    Mumsy: I think that not knowing and trusting the author (yet! yet!) make a big difference to how I read those moments. But I'm glad to hear that the fact that this is intentional becomes clear as the series progresses!

    Melanie: Yeah, it's realistic, but some of it bothered me anyway. I think it's because I still need to learn to read Peters' tone. But after two books I probably can begin to :P

  36. Interesting review, Ana! I haven't heard of this series before and now I can't wait to get started on it :) A couple of novels that I read many years back, on Egypt, which I liked very much were Wilbur Smith's 'River God' (it is set during the time of Ancient Egypt and has a princess who is strong character) and its sequel 'The Seventh Scroll' (which is set during modern times, where some of the action is also set in Ethiopia, where the source of the Nile is supposed to be located and has a women Egyptologist). Have you read them?

  37. Ms Peabody is waiting on my shelf, I must meet up with her soon! The books sound like perfect summer reading so it's possible that their time has finally come. :-)

  38. I found the ending of the first book rushed as well; I enjoyed it overall, but I haven't read on in the series yet either. Not because I didn't like it, but more because there are so many other series that I love more! Although I suspect it would grow on me if I did invest more time in it...

  39. Right...you let me know when you find an easy way to get a hold of Sarah Waters :p I bet she would know though!!!

  40. I've read those two books as well and I just didn't get on with Amelia. I was so disappointed too because this just seemed like the type of mystery I would like! But the series gets such rave reviews that every once in a while I think of picking up where I left off again just to give it another go. What about you? Do you think you'll read another?

  41. Yay, I'm so glad you enjoyed them. I agree that sometimes the secondary characters can be rather one dimensional, but I love Peters' books because they open up a world that is so interesting, complex and messy. And yes, just wait until you encounter Ramses:)

  42. Vishy: I've never read any Wilbur Smith, but I've seen his novels around, and the Egyptian-y covers always appeal to me!

    Joanna: I think you'll get along with her just as well as I did :D

    Buried in Print: I completely understand! I already owned the first two so I read them right one after the other, but who knows when I'll get the next.

    Chris: I'll work on it ;)

    Iliana: Yes, I'll definitely continue with the series. Despite my minor quibbles I enjoyed these immensely :)

    Sakura: There's definitely a lot to make up for the shallow secondary characters! And I can't wait to meet the older Ramses :)

  43. I've mentioned before that I'm not a mystery person, but these books have caught my eye before as just fun/easy reads. I may have to give them a try sometime!

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