Crocodile on the sandbank
(Elizabeth Peters, 1975)

Although Peters had written at least seven unrelated novels before this one, it was here that she finally struck gold. This American author made the mildly audacious decision to write a novel from the viewpoint of a 19th-century Englishwoman, set it mostly in Egypt, and mix in elements of archeology, crime, comedy, and romance. The mixture works remarkably well.

Peters was already an Egyptologist and knew her stuff in that respect. She was accustomed to writing crime stories with a dash of humour. But here she reached a higher level of characterization and humour than she'd achieved before. This story of a resourceful feminist let loose in Egypt in 1884 is truly hilarious and most entertaining, especially from being told in the first person.

It was followed in due course by numerous sequels giving the further adventures of Amelia Peabody and her expanding circle of family, friends and enemies. The sequels are in general a bit more serious than this first book, giving more emphasis to crime and adventure. However, outbreaks of hilarity continue to occur and are most welcome. So far I've read only the first nine books of the series; my mother has read them all and reports some decline in quality in the later ones (although she kept on reading).

The Peters imitation of a Victorian-English writing style is quite effective in the first book, but later on she grows less careful and more Americanisms creep in. It must be hard for an American to weed out all of these without using the services of a British editor. For instance, I've noticed that Americans commonly assume the expression freshen up to be generic English, whereas in fact it's an Americanism: we Brits don't use it.

Elizabeth Peters is a pseudonym for Barbara Mertz, who was born in 1927 and has now reached quite an advanced age; but she's said to be working on a new book in her series of Vicky Bliss novels.

Written in July 2007