In The Spotlight: Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Barbara Metz was a prolific writer who created several series under different names. This feature can only be improved by including one of her books, so let’s do that today. Metz’ Amelia Peabody novels were written under the name Elizabeth Peters. This particular series reflects Metz’ real-life expertise and interest in Egyptology (her Ph.D. was in that field), so I thought it might be appropriate to focus on that series. Let’s turn today’s spotlight on Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first Amelia Peabody novel.

The story begins in Rome in 1884. Amelia Peabody is a well-to-do unmarried heiress. This means that she’s free to do what she wishes with her money, and what she wants to do is travel to Egypt. At the last minute, her companion takes ill and has to return to England. Now, Miss Peabody sees no practical way to follow through with her plan. Then, she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who’s got her own sad history. She’s been abandoned by the man she thought she would marry, and for whom she turned her back on her family and her fortune. With no other real options, Evelyn is delighted and grateful when Miss Peabody invites her to go along to Egypt as companion.

The two arrive in Cairo, and prepare to outfit a boat for a two-month cruise of the Nile. While there, they meet archaeologists Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Amarna. Walter and Evelyn are immediately drawn to each other, but they have different sets of plans. The boat is readied, and Evelyn and Amelia set off on their trip.

Along the way, Amelia insists on stopping at various points of archaeological interest, since she is well-informed on, and fascinated by, ancient tombs and relics. One of them is near the village of Haggi Qandil. She and Evelyn discover that the place is also called Tell-el-Amarna, and that this is where the Emerson brothers are working.

The four meet up, and before anyone (except, perhaps, Amelia) knows it, they’re all ensconced at the excavation site. Evelyn is enjoying doing sketches of the finds, and Amelia is fascinated by the tombs and other discoveries. Walter is delighted to have Evelyn nearby, although his brother sees the two visitors as hindrances. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen.

First, a mummy that the Emersons discovered seems to disappear. Then, the local villagers report seeing a mummy walking around at night. The usually-practical and not-at-all-fanciful Amelia sees it, too. So does Evelyn. Other frightening things happen, too. The villagers and some of the work crew believe that the excavation is cursed, and want the English people to leave. But there are other possible explanations. It might be that a rival archaeologist has concocted this plan to scare the Emersons away, or goad the villagers into doing so. Or, it could be the villagers themselves, who might have discovered buried riches that they want to keep for themselves. Whatever it is, things soon get extremely dangerous for the Emersons, as well as for Amelia and Evelyn. If they’re going to stay alive, they’re going to have to find out who’s behind what’s happening, and stop that person.

The novel was published in 1975, but it has several elements of the classic/Golden Age plot. There’s treasure, a possible curse, a young couple whose love is threatened, and some dangerous situations and narrow escapes. There are other elements, too, but revealing them would come too close to spoiling the story for my taste.

The story takes place at the end of the 19th Century, and elements of the Victorian Era are woven through the novel, especially in terms of customs and mores. It’s not considered seemly, for instance, for members of the opposite sex to travel together unless they are at the very least engaged. And a lady certainly doesn’t travel unaccompanied. In her early thirties, Amelia Peabody is considered a spinster, with increasingly little chance to ‘find a man,’ so it’s not surprising that she wants Evelyn to join her on her trip.

This Victorian view of life comes through in other ways, too. The English are firmly at the top of the social ladder in Egypt, and the British Empire is about to reach its zenith. The Egyptians are seen as clearly inferior, although the excavation team doesn’t make the mistake of assuming they’re all ignorant savages. Still, that sense of ethnocentrism is there.

The story is told (in first person) from Amelia’s perspective, so we learn a lot about her. She is an extremely independent woman, who has contempt for most men, and believes strongly that women should have much more freedom than they do. She’s more empowered than most women are, because she’s both single and wealthy, but she knows she’s the exception. She’s intelligent, well-read, and interested in life. But she’s not perfect. She can be bossy and interfering, too. And, as we learn, she’s not always reliable as a narrator. Still, readers who prefer strong female characters who hold their own will appreciate Amelia Peabody.

Amelia can be sarcastic, especially as she spars with Radcliffe Emerson, so there is wit in the story. For instance, at one point, the two are having a conversation, when Amelia notices that there’s a slight smell of smoke. Soon, she sees what the problem is:
‘‘Your pocket is on fire,’ I added [to Emerson]. ‘I thought when you put your pipe away that it was not quite out, but you dislike advice so much…Good night.’’

But Emerson can hold his own. Later, he says this:

‘‘…Peabody had better retire to her bed; she is clearly in need of a recuperative sleep; she has not made a sarcastic remark for fully ten minutes.’’

Crocodile on the Sandbank is a classic/Golden Age style mystery with a distinctive Egyptian setting. It takes place in the late Victorian Era and reflects that time period. And it features a protagonist who has no intentions of restricting herself to the life ‘ladies’ are ‘supposed to’ live. But what’s your view? Have you read Crocodile on the Sandbank? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 9 October/Tuesday, 10 October –  Close Quarters – Michael Gilbert

Monday, 16 October/Tuesday, 17 October – Blind Goddess – Anne Holt

Monday, 23 October/Tuesday, 24 October – The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios – Eric Ambler


Filed under Barbara Metz, Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters

28 responses to “In The Spotlight: Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank

  1. I read this one for the first time only a few weeks ago, Margot. It’s quite witty and, of course, thoroughly researched. It’s more of an adventure story than a straight mystery, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that – and I do think the mummy is a wonderful touch!

    • Oh, I do, too, Les. I’m really glad you picked up on the wit in this one, because I definitely think it’s there. And it’s interesting you think of it as an adventure story. I can certainly see that, as it’s not really a whodunit.

  2. I love the idea of the Egyptian setting and the time period – and the mummy! I may have to investigate further… just in case I run out of books, you understand… 😉

    • Of course I understand, FictionFan! We can’t risk you running out of books, now can we? 😉 – And, honestly, I think Metz/Peters did a fine job evoking the time and setting. And the mummy. If you do squeeze this one in, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. I read all this series over the years…it’s a lot of fun but smart too.

  4. Col

    Thanks for the spotlight Margot. I don’t think it’s one for me though.

  5. Margot: It has been too many years since I read an adventure of Ms. Peabody to remember details. I recall enjoying the book and thinking she was an intriguing woman.

  6. Spade & Dagger

    Some years ago I read a number of the series, all out of order depending what was on the local library shelf. They stood up well as individual adventure stories, as you say, and were a refreshing change of style. The historical details were interesting too – I always enjoy a fiction book written by an author who is an expert in the field in the ‘day job’ .
    Amelia reminds me a little of Agatha Raisin by MC Beaton – a well developed, determined & intelligent female character.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the ones you read, Spade & Dagger. And you’re right; Metz’ expertise in archaeology certainly comes through here. You make an interesting comparison to Agatha Raisin. Certainly they’re both interesting and intelligent female characters. And both can be prickly.

  7. I’ve read a couple of books by this author and enjoyed them. I need to get caught up on the rest. Thanks for a great spotlight and a reminder of a delightful series, Margot.

  8. Sounds good. I know just the reader who would love this book (she loves anything about Egypt). Thanks, Margot!

  9. I read a few of hers on publication but not sure if this was one of them.

  10. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Author Elizabeth Peters is in the spotlight on the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

  11. Vijayalakshmi Harish

    I love the Amelia Peabody series! I have an obsession for mysteries featuring female archaeologists and it was this series that sparked that obsession 🙂

  12. I read this one when it first came out–loaned to me by a friend–and we both loved it, because it was so refreshingly original. I’ve read nearly everything by Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, and enjoyed nearly all them, but somehow never could connect with the rest of the Amelia Peabody series.

    Thanks for the reminder. (Oh heck, 42 years ago??? Noooo!)

    • Oh, I know what you mean, Susan! It hardly seems possible that it’s been that long *sigh.* I’m glad you’ve enjoyed this series, and I agree with you that it is really original. And Amelia Peabody is n original sort of character.

  13. I loved this book, Margot, and have read it several times. I also have the audio version. The interaction between Peabody and Emerson is priceless and even on occasion, laugh out loud funny. Actually I loved most of the books in this series (there were only maybe two clunkers in the lot) and I still enjoy rereading the early books – the third book is especially hilarious. You would think that someone would have turned these books into a TV series or a movie or two. I always imagined that Hugh Jackman would have made a terrific Emerson. And Judy Davis (when she was younger) would have been a splendid Peabody. As for the treatment of Egyptians, that improves as the books move along and relationships deepen and more characters are added.
    Still, I can’t help but enjoy Peabody’s Victorian assurance as she flies in the face of hypocrisy and stupidity. Just a fabulous character. AND the satirical style of writing too, very Victorian and H. Ryder Haggard-ish. So glad you enjoyed it.

    • It is a great series, isn’t it, Yvette? I agree with you, too, that part of what makes it work is the dynamic between Emerson and Peabody. They are well-matched, and both are imperfect, but still sympathetic characters. You have some great ideas for casting the series for TV or film, too. Someone could make a fortune… So glad you’ve liked the series as much as you have!

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