Retro Friday Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

Crocodile on the Sandbank
Elizabeth Peters

This is a book that landed on my radar last year when The Book Smugglers rec’ed it in one of their reviews for another book. Curious about a mystery series with a plucky Victorian parasol-wielding heroine, I kept it in mind, and pounced when I did see it for sale at that library book sale I went to a few weeks back (in other news, there’s another library book sale in Greenwich, CTthat I have my eyes on).
The Premise: Amelia Peabody was a middle aged spinster, the sole sibling of six willing to take care of her aging father. They lead a quiet life pursuing academia until her father dies, leaving Amelia with half a million pounds and her brothers apoplectic. At first, Amelia is amused by the her family’s sudden interest in her life now that she’s wealthy, but eventually her no-nonsense personality reasserts itself. She decides to leave England before she becomes a cynic and embark on a trip to see all the ancient cities that her father studied. Along the way Amelia rescues Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a fellow Englishwoman that has fallen on hard times after being disinherited by her grandfather. Amelia hires Evelyn to be her traveling companion, and they make their way to Egypt. Here, their adventure begins. On a trip along the Nile, the two women join the Emerson brothers (affable Walter and brooding Radcliffe, aka ‘Emerson’) at their archaeological site, and strange goings on begin to haunt their party.
My Thoughts: This story had a little bit of an old fashioned mystery feel to it. Published in 1975, it’s more modern than the Agatha Christie novels that I love, but it has that same British feel and is set in the past – in the Victorian era. Amelia Peabody is ahead of her time, she’s an independent woman who does as she wants, but she is also a product of her time in her unflappable belief in British superiority, especially when she sees the conditions that the Egyptians live and work in.
Actually, Amelia comes off as a bit of a know-it-all. Her personality is like that of a steamroller, she’s just formidable and sure of herself. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this, because growing up in a developing country, I was offended by Amelia’s constant tut-tutting over dirt and sanitation while she was in Egypt. So, I didn’t like this aspect of Amelia’s personality, her smug sense of superiority, but I felt like I could let it go because the story was set when it was and it wasn’t overt. When I put this part aside (and it happened less when the story got going), I found Amelia’s bossy practicality amusing and was able to warm to it, particularly when her personality clashed with that of the explosive Emerson.
Amelia and Evelyn first meet Walter and Emerson while visiting the museum of Boulaq, where Amelia decides that a statuette needs dusting and demonstrates this to her companion:

A howl- a veritable animal howl- shook the quiet of the room. Before I could collect myself to search for its source, a whirlwind descended upon me. sinewy, sun-bronzed hand snatched the statuette from me. A voice boomed in my ear.”Madam! Do me the favor of leaving those priceless relics alone. It is bad enough to see that incompetent ass, Maspero, jumble them about; will you complete his idiocy by destroying the fragments he has left?”

Evelyn had retreated. I stood alone. Gathering my dignity, I turned to face my attacker.

He was a tall man with shoulders like a bull’s and a black beard cut square like those of the statues of ancient Assyrian kings. From a face tanned almost to the shade of an Egyptian, vivid blue eyes blazed at me. His voice, as I had good cause to know, was a deep, reverberating bass. The accents were those of a gentleman. The sentiments were not.

“Sir,” I said, looking him up and down. “I do not know you- ”

“But I know you, madam! I have met your kind too often – the rampageous British female at her clumsiest and most arrogant. Ye gods! The breed covers the earth like mosquitoes, and is as maddening. The depths of the pyramids, the heights of the Himalayas – no spot on earth is safe from you!”

He had to pause for bream at this point, which gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for.

“And you, sir, are the lordly British male at his loudest and most bad-mannered. If the English gentlewoman is covering the earth, it is in the hope of counteracting some of the mischief her lord and master has perpetrated. Swaggering, loud, certain of his own superiority…”

My adversary was maddened, as I had hoped he would be. Little flecks of foam appeared on the blackness of his beard. His subsequent comments were incomprehensible, but several fragile objects vibrated dangerously on their shelves.

I stepped back a pace, taking a firm grip on my parasol. I am not easily cowed, nor am I a small woman; but this man towered over me, and the reddening face he had thrust into mine was suggestive of violence. He had very large, very white teeth, and I felt sure I had gotten a glimpse of most of them.”

Compared to the very nice (and civilized) relationship Walter and Evelyn have, Amelia and Emerson are loud and clashing, but I adored them much more. It was just so much fun watching these two dance around each other and generally acting like the other got on their last nerve. I had many a good chuckle at their grumpy banter, Emerson’s explosions, and Amelia’s tactic of purposefully annoying Emerson at strategic moments. They seemed (to me) well matched and I was curious if their real affections for one another would ever come to light. It was one of the reasons I kept turning the pages.
The mystery itself is a very theatrical one – figures in the darkness, sabotage, superstition, kidnapping and sickness, all in the Egyptian desert. Something about this (the archaeological backdrop, the tombs, the curse of Pharaohs), felt very familiar to me. I feel like maybe I have read this book, but it was so long ago that only the residue remains. I didn’t think that the mystery was very difficult to figure out, but there were a couple of twists in the end that I didn’t predict, so overall I was happy with it, but the mystery itself wasn’t the main draw. That was Amelia and the small cast of characters, and the sense of place – the Egyptian backdrop. Those things made this story special.
Overall: Another one in the “good’ category. And by “good” I mean somewhere in the “OK to Great” range.  There’s something comfortingly old-fashioned about this story, and it’s well written and has humor and a fascinating setting. On the other hand, I wish that the mystery was a bit more complex and that there were more characters. In the end, I really liked Amelia and Emerson and I hear that this series only gets better so I plan to continue to read about their adventures.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
fashion-piranha – 3 out of 5 stars
My Favourite Books – positive
Books and Other Thoughts – positive (I love her comments about her younger self’s reaction to the romantic developments)
About Happy Books – positive
Angieville – positive

6 thoughts on “Retro Friday Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

  1. Ahhhh… I LOVE this series. I really really do. I agree with your assessment of the first book, but the books get so much better – there is a lot more depth in later books. Yeah, bit of a fangirl here.


  2. I really need to get a move on with this series. I felt very similarly to you and so wondered at the HUGE fan following the series has. But I believe Li that the books get better and better. So time to get on that. Glad you gave it a shot!

  3. I like the first book, but it’s true that the series gets so much better. Once they settle in and have the ongoing plots built up a little, Peters starts playing with genre. So eventually you get old-school adventure, historical drama, and a few other things that would probably be spoilery to mention.

    There’s only one of these that I didn’t love to pieces, and that’s mostly because it hit off one of my big pet peeves. And even that one was well worth reading.

    I had that same sense of familiarity when I first started these books, and after I’d read three or four of them I realized what was setting that off in my case. I’m convinced that these characters and their relationships were part of the inspiration for The Mummy and its first sequel. Those movies took a more action-heavy, supernatural direction, but there are a lot of similarities.

    • I’m so glad that there are many votes to keep reading the series as it gets better. You have me interested in these subplots! And now I wonder what this pet peeve was! 🙂

      I think someone else was noting the similarity with The Mummy movies, but I don’t think that’s why I feel this deja vu..or is it? I will mull it over. I really wonder if I did read this while looking for anything that was like Agatha Christie in my high school library. My memory is pretty bad when it comes to remembering books that I read more than a *coughcough* years ago.

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