When I saw the first of the Amelia Peabody mysteries was free for Kindle, I snatched it up the way a crocodile snatches unsuspecting prey. And finally I've had a chance to read it. There are certain things I do make time for.
For those few of you who may not know Amelia -- often referred to as Peabody -- she is a late-Victorian spinster who has inherited sufficient funds from her father to indulge her passion for Egyptology. Author Elizabeth Peters was herself, under her real name of Barbara Mertz, an archaeologist, by training if not by practice. Was Peabody the author's vicarious adventurer? Perhaps, but those many, many readers who have enjoyed the Peabody mysteries will hardly fault the author!
Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first in the series and introduces the reader to not only Amelia herself but several other continuing characters. The mystery is a bit over the top, involving a reanimated Mummy (capitalized thus in the narrative), plenty of greed and threats and murderous intent. As such, the story is entertaining and mildly challenging, but for me that was only secondary.
My main interest was the personality of Amelia Peabody -- and her companions as well -- and how Peters constructed her.
Barbara Mertz knew the constraints placed on educated women in the mid-20th century -- you can read a brief autobiography on her website here -- and I suppose there was some temptation writing in the 1970s to create a fictional character who took second wave feminism back the better part of a century to the 1880s. Amelia Peabody is not, however, a 1970s woman. She is much more a Victorian feminist, and as such she may not be appealing to all readers.
Did Peters use Peabody to poke fun at the worst excesses of the Victorians while highlighting their positives? I like to think so, not to excuse Amelia for her English arrogance and self-righteousness, including her colonial racism, but to view her as a kind of prickly bridge between her day and ours, because the 1970s feminists were not without their faults, as well.
Amelia is no Mary Sue. She has her failings, and in some ways she is almost a caricature. Peters seems to be making fun of Amelia and the rest of the cast, while at the same time giving them credit where credit is due. There is satire here, and some self-mockery.
Taken at face value, Crocodile on the Sandbank isn't that great a mystery novel. As a character study, as an exploration of a particular slice of Victoriana, it's delightful. And much better the second, or third, time around.
I have most of the 18 sequels in paperback, and I'll be digging into them over the coming months. Peters takes the characters from the late Victorian era well into the 20th Century, and it will be interesting to see how they change with the times, both their own and their author's.