Sunday, 1 December 2013

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

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.

17 comments:

  1. I just listened to this on audio and really enjoyed it! It was my first time reading Peters because I was always a bit overwhelmed with the size of the series. I am thinking I will stick with audios and look forward to reading Volume 2 soon! And I agree, she is a very 'take it or leave it' character, but I really enjoyed my meeting with her. :)

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  2. I had a friend who really loved these and I've always felt that I owed it to her memory to at least try them. You say this is the first book where Amelia and Radcliffe meet. is it also the first in the whole series? I have a thing about starting at the beginning.

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    1. Yes, it is the first. It's actually a bit confusing reading them out of order so I wouldn't recommend it. I've promised myself that I'm reading right through in order this time.

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  3. It took me years to get past the first book. I just found Amelia so overwhelming and off-putting and it wasn't until I tried some of the later books that I came to adore her. Now this is one of my favourite series and I shudder to think there was a time when I actively avoided reading about the Emerson clan.

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    1. I felt the same when I first encountered them - I kept going because it was a rather lean period when I didn't have much to read. Amelia really does grow on you!

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  4. I've been thinking about this book a lot recently, not exactly sure why. I've listened to the first two in this series and have the third on hold, though it's actually been a couple years since I finished the second one. I loved Amelia straight off; she really is such a distinct character! I can see how she might be a bit off-putting, though, and to be fair I don't know that I could listen to the audiobooks in quick succession -- I needed a bit of space from Amelia after the first one, and had the same experience with the second. Now I'm quite ready for the third.

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    1. I'd like to think that if I'd been born when Amelia was I'd be as strong a person - but I hate discomfort so I don't think it's likely :-(

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  5. Oddly enough this is the only one of this series I *have* read. I read it years ago having spotted it in the library, loved it but back then there were no more and I forgot about it. Then I read it again several years ago, quite enjoyed it but never felt inclined to read any more. Why, I've no idea.

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    1. Part of the draw for me is the Egyptology, I've always been fascinated by it, and there's enough in the books to pull me back. And I think they get better as they go on - relationships develop, political situations affect where they can dig, children grow up...
      And anyway, that happens with books, doesn't it? You love something and then you realise you've read as much as you need to.

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  6. I'd never heard of these books before that Kindle deal. I read the first one and loved it! Nice to think I have the other three ready for when I feel like reading them.

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    1. Some of the others are quite reasonably priced as well - the fifth was only £2.39. But I think you may be better than me at holding out for the best deals on Kindle? These are excellent Christmas reading, I think - there's something very satisfying about being warm and cosy while enjoying vicarious hardships!

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  7. I liked Amelia so much when I read Crocodile on the Sandbank that it's hard for me to fathom why anybody wouldn't like her! I know it's a real phenomenon that occurs, because I have heard from other readers who responded negatively to her, but I don't understand why. She makes me laugh so much, and she keeps making me laugh all the way through the series.

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    1. She's so opinionated, Jenny, that at first I wasn't sure if I liked her myself. I think I would hate to know her, she would drive me to distraction.

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  8. I love Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels but for some reason I've never got beyond the first couple of Amelia books - I didn't take to her and I didn't like Emerson at all. Odd when you consider that I lived in Egypt for a year! I love her Vicky Bliss books though, and a lot of her stand-alones.

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    1. I love Vicky Bliss too - got one out of the library at the moment. Lovely!

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  9. I am definitely on Team Amelia ;) I love all these books and find her very amusing. I also really enjoy the young Ramses. I think that the first 5 in the series are the best, but having said that, it's been a few years since I read them. Time to reread soon!

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