So, here we are at the first Elizabeth Peters Memorial Re-read, with Crocodile on the Sandbank by the same. Crocodile was first published in 1975 by Dodd, Mead, and is the first in the Amelia Peabody Mystery series. It’s not Barbara Mertz’s (Elizabeth Peters’ real name) first fiction, but the Peabody mysteries have always been my favorite and so they’ll be what I re-read right now.
Fair warning for anyone who might not have read these yet, there will be spoilers ahead.
Crocodile on the Sandbank introduces us to many of the central characters in the APM series, particularly Amelia Peabody herself. She is the narrator, supposedly writing a diary of her life after her father dies. She inherits his unexpectedly considerable fortune and takes to traveling the Classical world. Quite early she more-or-less adopts a girl she finds fainting in the Roman Forum, one Evelyn Barton Forbes with a tragic recent history but a very wealthy and distinguished family. She is penniless (or so she supposes), recently abandoned by her lover, and now contemplating suicide. Evelyn is on the surface a rather typical Victorian gentle-woman; soft-voiced and gentle, unused to making her own decisions, and rather averse to conflict. Amelia is decidedly NOT your average Victorian woman, and has decision enough for an entire army. So, she takes Evelyn along on her continued travels to Egypt. The two become quite close, almost as sisters, and are enjoying themselves hugely. Amelia is becoming enormously interested in Ancient Egypt and the study thereof, and in a quieter sort of way, so is Evelyn.
Here we meet two more important characters, the Emerson brothers Radcliffe and Walter. Radcliffe (affectionately known as Emerson to nearly everyone) the elder is a rather curmudgeonly Egyptologist with advanced ideas (for the time, which is 1885) about excavation techniques. He is based rather heavily on a real archaeologist from the same period named William Flinders Petrie. Petrie is often considered the “god-father” of modern Egyptology as he was one of the first to treat excavation as a means to gaining knowledge, rather than simply a means to gaining valuable antiquities for either sale or personal gain. The character of Emerson is the same, and due to this and a rather legendary temper, he is at odds with nearly every other archaeologist on the planet, even Petrie. The former he regards with extreme contempt, while the latter he considers a rival for pre-eminence.
The younger Emerson, Walter, is a different sort of man. He’s quieter, less tempestuous, and though he often assists his brother in excavation his true passion is philology (the study of ancient languages). At their first meeting, in the Boulaq Museum, Walter and Evelyn are clearly enamored of each-other. They quickly fall in love, but Evelyn holds herself a bit aloof as she believes herself disgraced by her out-of-wedlock philandering with a scoundrel, and therefore unfit for matrimony with any decent man. This, then, seems to be the crocodile on the sandbank of love referenced in the title (an ancient egyptian literary reference I’ll explain later). The young men then depart Cairo for their excavation site at Amarna, the ancient city of the heretic Pharaoh Akhnaton (who is referred to by the original Victorian misspelling of Khuenaton). Amelia and Evelyn soon follow, somewhat inadvertently, as they are determined to visit the historic site.
When the ladies arrive at Amarna, the find that Radcliffe Emerson has fallen gravely ill and Walter is desperate for help. At this time, there are no doctors nor any modern amenities within reach, for the nearest villages are very poor and rather primitive due to the aforesaid poverty. Amelia immediately takes charge and nurses Radcliffe through the crisis, then takes over the supervision of the archaeological dig and the preservation of the exposed antiquities. She does all this over Emerson’s noisy but ineffectual objections, proceeding full-steam ahead despite her lack of training. Her confidence and natural intelligence carries her through, and Emerson mends nicely while the archaeological work proceeds smoothly.
At this point, enter the peripatetic mummy. An apparently reanimated mummy begins to terrorize them and their expedition. Emerson and Amelia are skeptical, but unable to catch and unmask the villain before it drives their workers away in fear and nearly drives them from the site. They are joined in the danger by Evelyn’s cousin, who is attempting to convince her to marry him to “save” her from the poverty she has fallen into due to a falling out with her grandfather shortly before his death. Despite her affection for her cousin, she continues to refuse his increasingly pressing advances, largely due to her affection for Walter.
As the tension escalates, so does the romantic tension between Evelyn and Walter, and ultimately between Amelia and Radcliffe. The mummy mystery is rather simple and straightforward, really just Amelia dangling her feet into the waters of practical investigation. But the romance between her and the elder Emerson is subtle and well-executed. You don’t often think of a Victorian-era romance heroine as falling in love with a man who pushes her to excel at a dirty, difficult and dangerous profession such as early archaeology. Nor do you expect the hero to fall in love with the woman who is “unfashionably” beautiful, particularly when she is dirty, bruised, and trapped in a collapsing tomb. But that is exactly what happens. It’s one of my favorite romantic arcs of all time, not least because Amelia and Radcliffe are so delightfully perfect for each other.
The title, Crocodile on the Sandbank, is a reference to an Ancient Egyptian love song, part of a cycle known as The Cairo Lovesongs. In it, the lover is saying there are many obstacles between him and his lady-love, but he will brave them in order to be with her. The reasoning behind this choice should be apparent to any Reader who is paying attention. This book is ultimately a love-story, or rather two love-stories entwined, with just a hint of mystery to spice it up.
The love of my sister¹ lies on yonder side,
and the river is between us;
a crocodile waits on the sandbank.
Yet I’ll go down to the water,
I’ll head into the waves;
my heart is brave on the water,
and the waves like land to my legs.²