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