Crocodile on a Sandbank, first published in 1975
I've always known that the first encounter between Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson must have been an almighty clash of personalities, but for some reason I'd never read the first of Elizabeth Peters' books. When I discovered (some time ago) a cheap Kindle deal on the first four, I snapped it up, but have only now got round to reading it (there are still good deals, incidentally - as I write, this first is on Amazon UK for 99p).
Much of the character of Emerson is based on Flinders Petrie, as is the research - Petrie was the first Egyptologist to systematically categorise his finds, realising that where other dating methods were impossible, pottery - for instance - could be identified by its stage of development, so he meticulously recorded each piece, building up a historical record. Much information had been lost through haphazard "research" and straightforward looting, but Petrie's methodical approach makes early twentieth-century archaeology a fascinating field, and Peters' series is a wonderfully rendered and spirited recreation of that period. Amelia Peabody has all the characteristics that made early lady explorers indomitable - she travels in comfort because it would be irrational not to do so, rather than because she is afraid of discomfort:
Emerson grumbled at all the unnecessary luxury. I myself have no objection to comfort so long as it does not interfere with more important activities. (From Curse of the Pharaohs)She despises the squalor and poverty in which most of the Egyptians live, but alleviates these conditions wherever she can, travelling with a collection of eye ointments and other paraphernalia, and she makes lifelong friends of many of their workers.
Inevitably, Amelia's meeting with Emerson is the scene of immediate conflict, since both are opinionated and emphatically convinced of their own correctness in everything. It is Emerson's younger brother Walter, and Amelia's companion Evelyn, at once attracted to each other, who contrive further meetings. The Emerson brothers are digging at the site of the heretic king Akhenaten's temple, but they are beset by problems caused by the superstition of the workers and their own chronic lack of funding. In fact, when the women arrive, Emerson is seriously ill and Amelia must at once set to work to save him. When he recovers, the willingness of both women to approach archaeology with care and academic rigour rapidly establishes the quartet as a team so effective that even the reluctant Emerson must admit it.
Peters treads the line between Amelia's self-awareness and self-deception with great skill (and considerable glee) even in this first of the series. Amelia is always so certain of her own rationality and rightness -- and much of the time, the reader will agree that her decisiveness and proposals are most sensible. Indeed, her obtuseness at times can look like wilful self-deception and, if it is, it's as plausible a trait as any other she shows. The reader simultaneously concurs with the other characters and colludes with Peabody in overcoming their objections to the course she proposes, but no decision ever proceeds without much wrangling:
Only Evelyn’s intervention prevented a full-scale battle at breakfast, and it was she who insisted that we all get some sleep before discussing the matter again. All our tempers were strained by fatigue, she said; we could not think clearly. This was, of course, Evelyn’s tact; her temper was never strained, and I am rational under all circumstances. It was Emerson who needed rest in order to be sensible, although I doubted that sleep would improve his disposition very much.In case you've never read anything by Elizabeth Peters (I guess there may still be the odd soul out there who hasn't), this series isn't just about archaeology -- all the novels have a mystery at their heart. In Crocodile on a Sandbank someone is apparently trying to sabotage the dig -- the mummy of a long-dead priest of Amon appears to be haunting the site and there are numerous unexplained accidents. In fact, this is a running theme throughout the series, trading on the competitive and sometimes cut-throat nature of early Egyptology. And, of course, there's the Curse of the Pharaoh...
I can imagine that for some, Amelia Peabody might just be too much, I suspect you are either going to love her or hate her. Her admiration (privately expressed) for her husband can be a bit irritating at times, but it's entirely in character. She feels like a real person; I adore her.