Thursday, April 4, 2013

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Amelia Peabody can be summarized by a few words: sensible, self-confident and self-sufficient. A Victorian lady with the good fortune to have had a wealthy father, she is now pursuing her interest in all things ancient and Egyptian by travelling that country armed with her extensive fortune, an endless sense of determination and a stout umbrella. She was accompanied by a suitably boring companion until their stay in Rome, where the thoughtless woman developed a horrible disease and had to be sent home to England. However, she came across another, more suitable travelling companion in the form of the destitute, but beautiful, Evelyn Forbes. Miss Forbes is a fallen woman, whose Italian lover has abandoned her now that her grandfather has written her out of his will because of her scandalous behavior.

Undeterred by Evelyn’s previous poor judgment, Amelia rebuilds the poor girl’s wardrobe and self-esteem and then they depart for Egypt. There they encounter the Emerson brothers and Evelyn is smitten by the young of the pair, Walter, while Amelia detests the elder brother, Radcliffe, on sight. They also meet Evelyn’s cousin, Lucas, who brings news of their grandfather’s death and his position as the new heir. He proposes marriage so that she will be allowed to inherit after all.

During their cruise down the Nile the ladies re-encounter the brothers at their dig site and decide to stay to help Radcliffe recover from a terrible infection. However, things at the dig site are much more complicated that they would seem. A strange mummy begins to haunt the dig, terrifying the local diggers and Lucas arrives to continue his pursuit of Evelyn, much to Walter’s distress.

This series was one that I had seen mentioned in some of the reviews for Gail Carriger’s Soulless, with comments about the similarities in their settings and the heroine. While it is true that both Amelia and Alexia have similarities in their general appearance and temperament, and that both books are set within the Victorian era, I found several differences between the two. While Ms Carriger maintains a cutting and sarcastic tone, especially in the way that Alexia views the world, Ms Peters gives Amelia a much more bombastic voice, with much less wit and bite. I also found that the plotting and world building were handled very differently, with Ms Carriger’s story ripping along at a good pace, whilst Ms Peters’ struggled from far too much description and unimportant detail. The final difference that was most obvious was the way in which the two authors handled the love-hate relationship between the heroine and her leading man. In Alexia, we have a woman who is constantly aware that she is lacking a soul and, therefore, is not quite normal in her lack of emotionality. This gives her a unique perspective on her growing feelings for Maccon, which she does not understand or trust, and adds to the humor in the situation. In contrast, Amelia’s bloody-minded refusal to recognize the obvious attraction between herself and Radcliffe becomes simply irritating.

Even if we put aside the comparisons with The Parasol Protectorate, we are left with a novel that is not entirely satisfying. The plotting was dreadfully slow, with so much detail about the preparations necessary for a trip down the Nile and then about the trip itself, that I was tempted to skip over some sections. This is very, very unusual for me, and shows how difficult it was for me to stay engaged with the characters. I plodded along, convinced that there must be some significance in the description of the pyramids, the decoration for their ship, what they were wearing, what Amelia had in her first aid kit . . . but, alas, these proved to be merely set dressing that a good editor would have hacked out with numerous slashes of a red pencil. I can understand the desire to wax lyrical about a subject dear to your heart, and I would probably do the same if I ever attempted to write a novel set in Rome, either ancient or modern, but there is a point at which one must stop describing the scenery and actually get on with the action.

Unfortunately, the plot itself was rather predictable, which made the unnecessary description even more annoying. When I have read most of a book, where very little has happened, only to have the ‘big reveal’ illicit nothing more than a disappointed eye roll I am not a happy bunny. I expect some mystery in my mystery novels and a surprise at the end when the cunning plan is revealed. This book had neither and left me feeling like I had wasted my time plowing through all the pages up to that point. Perhaps if the ‘eccentric’ British characters had been more witty and amusing I would have been swept along, but they were actually pretty tame. There was also very little use of the Egyptian and Italian characters, which left the story focused on the four main characters and made it even more imperative that they be entertaining.

On the whole, this was a disappointing read for me and I am not sure that I can ascribe that entirely to the book’s publication date of 1975.


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