The Crocodile on the Sandbank

After years of seeing Elizabeth Peters novels on the bookstore shelves, glittering with the promise of Egypt and mystery (though it's hard to glitter in mass market paperback, so perhaps they only beckoned), I finally decided that it was time to give them a whirl and I am quite pleased with the decision. They're more whimsical than I otherwise would have expected, but Peters certainly can craft amusing characters. The Crocodile on the Sandbank is the very first in a series of mysteries that feature Amelia Peabody, a nineteenth century woman with the spirit of Indiana Jones... if Dr. Jones was a bit more prone to solving mysteries and leaping to conclusions that got everyone into a spot of bother. As proof of my enjoyment, you should know that within forty-eight hours, I purchased two copies of this book -- the first for my nook and the second in paperback for my mother, as I could tell that she would never forgive me if I didn't pass copies of this series along to her.

Amelia Peabody, a thirty-two year old self-professed spinster with both a figure and a personality that are decidedly not in season, has just inherited her father's half-a-million pounds upon his death. After amusing herself for a while by watching men fall all over themselves to ask for her money--er, her hand--she decides that she will not stay locked up in the house like her father, reading about far-off lands. Miss Peabody intends to venture forth to see the world for herself -- and she is not a woman easily dissuaded from a course of action. The conventions of the time might have stopped other lesser women, but not Amelia Peabody; she plans quite well for her journey, supplying herself with plentiful first-aid materials, a simpering companion whom she can bully for the entire trip, and a study parasol. Top it all off with her no-nonsense British sensibilities and confidence in the power of the British empire, there's nothing in her way -- until she reaches Rome and her companion takes ill. Even Amelia Peabody knows that society will prove quite troublesome if she disregards all convention by traveling alone, but a solution immediately presents itself when she picks up the young Englishwoman Miss Evelyn Barton-Forbes in Rome. Quite literally, she picks up a fainting Evelyn from the streets of Rome and finds a delightful and brave young woman who made the mistake of falling in love with the wrong fellow. By running off with him, Evelyn enraged her grandfather and was struck from his will -- thus resulting in her unworthy lover's abandonment. With her honor ruined and with no one to whom she might turn, Evelyn finds her savior in Miss Peabody... and Miss Peabody finds a devoted companion and friend.

Together, Amelia and Evelyn take off for Egypt... and Amelia promptly entangles them in the affairs of others after noticing that Evelyn might have a worthy admirer in Mr. Walter Emerson, an expert in Egyptian hieroglyphs who is currently working on an excavation headed by his brother. Said brother is a different kettle of fish -- introduced to us in the form of a howling bear, furious with Amelia for picking up shards of pottery in the antiquities section of the museum, an incident which only fuels his rage at the curator for failing to run a proper institution. This is Mr. Radcliffe Emerson, a temperamental ogre of a man with an unrivaled knowledge of ancient Egypt and no good opinion of tourists or English ladies. We can all see where this is going.

Noticing Evelyn's fondness for Walter (Amelia has a matchmaking streak, despite her own unwed state) and eager to see an actual excavation site, Amelia manages to reroute their own travel plans so that their paths will cross with the Emerson brothers' site. Of course, her plans are fortuitous, as they arrive just as the elder Emerson is struck will illness; Amelia manages to save his life while allowing Walter and Evelyn time to get acquainted. Evelyn, tormented by the belief that no good man would want her in her fallen state, actually finds herself with an abundance of suitors when her cousin shows up, insisting that her romantic mistake can be forgotten about if she will marry him and come home. If this seems a bit fishy, then don't be surprised when other figures appear, too -- like newly risen mummy that frightens the locals and threatens our main characters. Everything works out in the end, of course, and since we're surrounded with sensible British stock, you can bet that they get to the bottom of this mummy nonsense.

If you're looking for a great mystery novel with twists, turns, and gasps... then this isn't your best bet. The mystery and the plot are a distant second to the personalities, but if that's okay with you, then I think you'll be as delighted as I was in discovering some terribly entertaining characters. Amelia Peabody is a delightful heroine, full of enthusiasm and energy, eager to barrel into danger yet still concerned for the well-being of her friends. At once quite rational and yet imaginative enough to wildly hypothesize, she's a wonderful blend of wit and whimsy. I did rather assume that romance might not happen quite so quickly for the resigned spinster, but evidently Peters had different ideas and wanted a couple to tackle these Egyptian mysteries as opposed to Amelia on her own. With her stubborn nature, she's willing to take on both mummies and the even more foreboding Emerson... both to very amusing ends. The reader will figure out exactly what's what far ahead of the characters as far as mysteries and romance are concerned, and yet to watch everything play out is a delight.

This is clearly a novel written with the intention of being the first in a series, establishing personalities and acquainting the reader with the world of Egyptian excavations in the 1880s. It certainly helps that the characters are well worth the effort and left me eager to read anything that might come after. It also helps that Elizabeth Peters is quite a creditable writer with an unimpeachable knowledge of ancient Egypt and an ear for charming dialogue. It didn't much feel like a mystery novel, but I trust that such instincts will improve... and quite frankly, even if they don't, I'll still happily content myself with the banter between Amelia and Emerson. While Walter and Evelyn are a bit one note, they were somewhat of a relief from the strong personalities of Amelia and Emerson, and yet I suspect their presence will be limited, as characters like this have a tendency to settle down and produce a large brood of children, thus rendering them unable to run around the Egyptian deserts after mummies. As a series that will likely have each book strike a very similar chord (mystery in Egypt, Peabody and Emerson clash while adoring each other), I suppose it all has the potential to grow tiresome after a while, but I certainly hope that Peters will be quite capable of presenting fresh scenarios as we go.

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