Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Adventure classics -- Peabody & ruins: love at first sight

Crocodile on the Sandbank

by Barbara Mertz (writing as Elizabeth Peters)


“At least we don’t have to worry about finding a job for her,” the late Barbara Mertz reported overhearing one of her professors say to another. “She’ll get married.”

The time was just after the second World War. Rosie the Riveter and her sisters were being shooed out of the labor market to make room for soldiers returning to civilian life. It was not the best of times for a young woman to earn a degree in Egyptology. And although Mertz (who did get married), declared that bringing up her children was “the most challenging, tiring, rewarding, demanding job in the world” she still wanted to be an archeologist. With a tenacity worthy of her Victorian heroine, the indomitable Amelia Peabody, Mertz turned her archeological training first into nonfiction, then into a bestselling mystery series that made its debut in 1975 with the opening book, Crocodile on the Sandbank.

Following the death of her scholarly father, self-proclaimed “middle-aged spinster” Amelia Peabody had only planned to use her inheritance to finance a conventional circa 1884 grand tour of Egypt. But that was before she met the pyramids. Or perhaps that should be, before the pyramids met her. Woman and pyramids, both have met their match.

(The illustration for this post is taken from a 1886 painting by Amelia Peabody’s contemporary, J.A. Benwell. It shows the Sphinx of Giza as Amelia describes it, with its body buried in sand.)

As has Byronically handsome, quick-tempered, and foul-mouthed archeologist Radcliffe Emerson, whose language Peabody (to give her the name Emerson will use routinely) declares beyond the ability of a lady either to understand nor reproduce.

And although Peabody asks her readers why “any independent, intelligent female (would) choose to subject herself to the whims and tyrannies of a husband,” those same readers will recognize what Peabody and Emerson spend the book learning--that the two are made for each other.

Along the way Peabody will rout the villainous Lord Ellesmere, intent on stealing the inheritance, not to mention the hand, of Peabody’s lovely companion, Evelyn Barton-Forbes. Peabody effectively adopted Evelyn after the younger woman had been abandoned by an unprincipled lover. And in the course of the book, Peabody will foster a love match between Radcliffe Emerson’s equally handsome but more docile brother, Walter, as well as saving priceless Egyptian artifacts, one of which is preserved with a startlingly unconventional formula of tapioca and water, which Mertz assures us was actually used in the same way by pioneer Egyptologist Matthew Flinders Petrie.

To risk a spoiler for my own more bloody-minded readers, the crocodile of the title is, as Peabody herself states, “a symbol of the dangers and difficulties any true lover would risk to win his sweetheart,” derived from Walter Emerson’s supposed translation of a poem from an ancient papyrus. (The 2003 Amelia Peabody’s Egypt: A Compendiumlists the poem’s sources as W. K Simpson’s The Literature of Ancient Egypt and M. Lichtheim’s Ancient Egyptian Literature: The New Kingdom.)

Mertz (or should I call her Peters?--like her own characters, she answered to a multitude of names) dishes up equal helpings of mystery, romance, humor and history in the Amelia Peabody stories, which track the career of that intrepid lady from 1885 to the 1920’s. Before Mertz died August 8, 2013, at the age of 85, she would write 19 Peabody mysteries, included in her more than 70 volumes of novels, short stories, and nonfiction under the pen names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, as well as Barbara Mertz.

For more about Mertz, her life and writings, see her official website,

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an April of mysterious adventures with In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote.)

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