Crocodile On The Sandbank (Amelia Peabody #1), by Elizabeth Peters
I was recommended this series by a friend, and if I am going to read the more than 20 books that are a part of the series it is going to have to get a lot better than this. I spent most of this book rooting for someone to off Amelia Peabody, or at least shut her up, despite knowing that she would survive for twenty more novels or so, in the hope that she would somehow become less shrill and less tiresome of a feminist. There are a lot of feminist novels that show a strong female detective in a historical setting, and I am by no means hostile to reading about strong and intelligent women, but there is a proper way to go about it and then there is this. A wise author recognizes that not everyone who reads the book is going to be favorable to biased feminist rhetoric, and so he (or more usually she, in this situation) will demonstrate the humanity, humility, intellect, and strength of a female protagonist through her solving of mysteries and dealing with a wide variety of people with a great deal of savoir faire. This novel does not do that, instead the author continually beats the reader over the head with her biased perspective of feminism and expects the reader to be on board. I was not, and I am not, on board with the author’s approach. Let’s hope she gets better at it further along in the series.
This book has the disadvantage of having to introduce the protagonist and her approach, and there is a lot here that is simply table setting for the novel and (presumably) for the rest of the series. We meet Amelia Peabody as a 32-year old spinster dealing with the problems of finding a suitable companion for a trip to Egypt. Immediately in the novel her female companion becomes a sort of desirable object to be contested over by a variety of people (including Miss Peabody) who struggles with some degree of shame as a result of having been seduced, and whose odious cousin wishes to marry her. The level of this novel’s obviousness and heavy-handedness is such that any character that one sees of as odious is likely to be the villain or in league with him, showing the author didn’t yet have full command of her genre when she wrote this. Be that as it may, there is a lot of genuinely interesting material here, including two romantic subplots, one of which involves knowledge being kept from the beloved and the other of which involves two characters who have negative chemistry who naturally end up married. The novel ends happily, although for my part Amelia Peabody probably needed to get slapped around a good deal more than she was, and there is at least some worthwhile Egyptology here even if it is presented with a marked bias for scientism.
This is by no means the worst novel that has been recommended to me by friends, but it is by no means a good one either. I can see this novel appealing to man-hating shrews, but as a man who is fairly fierce in defending my sex, a great deal of this novel was irritating and tiresome to the extreme. When there is actually something going on, like planning the defense of the main party or efforts at digging and interpreting Egyptian ruins, including those in the area of Tel Al-Amarna, the novel moves along nicely. Sadly, too much of this novel is spent in tedious and infuriating gender politics for my tastes. Again, this is a first novel, and it is very possible that things get a lot better as the author gets more comfortable showing and not feeling it necessary to tell everyone that Amelia is a smart woman when in many cases she is not, particularly not when it comes to matters of social intelligence. On the plus side, at least it does set a rather low bar of entry into the series, in that it is possible that things get a lot better over the course of decades of writing than they were here when the author was far too immersed in the culture wars of the time.