Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

When I need to relax my brain by reading for the sheer entertainment of it, I reach for a mystery novel. The Amelia Peabody novels, of which Crocodile on the Sandbank is the first, are old friends of mine that can be relied on for their high entertainment quotient.

They are, first and foremost, spoofs of the Rider Haggard style of adventure novel: exaggerated characters, unlikely plots, and exotic locations. Amelia Peabody, Victorian spinster of independent means, sets off on some recreational travel and literally picks up a female companion in the streets of Rome. Her new friend has a satisfyingly murky past which follows them to their next destination, Egypt, where they meet the Emerson brothers who are conducting an archaeological dig. Amelia falls in love with Egypt and archaeology but finds herself at daggers drawn with the elder Emerson; or is that also love? Mix in a ghostly mummy and a smarmy villain or two, and you’ve got yourself a few hours of escapism.

I know people who intensely dislike these novels on account of the characters. They’re heroic: impossibly larger than life, preposterously resourceful, and when we get to the younger generation a few books along in the series, improbably good-looking and talented to boot. They’re possessed of great eloquence and terrifying amounts of self-confidence. But you’ve got to remember, they’re spoofs. No realism was intentionally harmed in the making of these novels. These are the creations of a confident writer who is having a huge amount of fun, and if you take them in the right spirit you’ll be laughing too.

On top of that, Peters’ writing is wonderfully crisp and spare, despite larding Amelia’s inner thoughts with sentences like “a glittering web of stars covered the indigo-blue vault” (because Amelia thinks in romance-novel clichés) and, as the series unfolds, inflicting some most distressing speech habits on her son Ramses. The plots whip along at a fast gallop to a fairly predictable conclusion, and much of the fun comes from waiting for the moment when Amelia herself cottons on to what’s happening.

As an added benefit, if you read through the series you’ll learn a surprising amount about archaeology, Egyptian history and geography, and many related matters. Several “real” historical characters or either directly portrayed or known to the fictional characters, and there’s a running Tutankhamen joke for good measure.

I’m not going to review every book in the series, but as I work my way through weightier tomes such as Gravity’s Rainbow I’ll be taking refreshing sips from the Emerson well to keep me going. A girl can’t be a literary snob ALL the time.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I LOVE this series. You have captured the spirit and fun of these books perfectly. I was sad when I read the last. They were great books to take along on a train ride here in Switzerland.