Though I knew that Barbara Mertz was in her 80s, and not in the best health, I was still so surprised and dismayed to learn of her death last week. I never met her in person, though I once had a very kind note in answer to a fan letter. It is a strange feeling when a beloved author dies. Mixed in with grief for the individual is a feeling of loss for the characters and worlds that she created. I was introduced to the books that Barbara Mertz wrote as Elizabeth Peters by one of my college roommates (we are still sharing books, which reminds me her birthday is coming up). I've been reading her books for almost 25 years now, and I have more of them on my shelves than of any other author except Anthony Trollope and P.G. Wodehouse.
On my friend's recommendation, I started with the Amelia Peabody books. I was living in Michigan at the time, working at my first job, with a salary that after the austerities of grad school still amazed me, in a town with real bookstores. Though I had always managed to acquire books, that was when I really started collecting the books that are with me still. I was on my own, in a new city, with a new career, and her books came at just the right time for me. (Two years later they came with me to Houston, to another new job in a bigger city with even more bookstores). The women in her stories are strong, intelligent, active, adventurous, blessed with the gifts of friendship and humor. In the course of their adventures they usually find love, but that doesn't define them or their stories. I think Amelia Peabody Emerson is her best-known and probably most popular character, with the long series of books about her adventures in professional and marital partnership with Radcliffe Emerson, the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other age. I am also a big fan of acerbic Jacqueline Kirby, a librarian turned romance writer turned sleuth. While I enjoy the books with Vicky Bliss, an American working as a museum curator in Munich, the real fun of that series for me is the master criminal John Smythe and his cornflower-blue eyes, created as an homage to Dorothy Dunnett's great Francis Crawford of Lymond. And there are many wonderful stand-alone books, written both as Elizabeth Peters and as Barbara Michaels. I came a little later to the Michaels books, most of them mysteries with a supernatural element. I slept with the light on for a night or two after finishing Ammie, Come Home for the first time. As much as I love Ruth and Pat, and enjoy their appearance in later books, I still keep that one for daytime reading. I found another, The Crying Child, so unnerving that I gave my copy away. I have also read and admired the books that Dr. Mertz wrote on Egypt and Egyptology, under her own name.
In the end, the books remain, a literary legacy, with her many wonderful characters, and those vividly-evoked settings, from tidewater Virginia to the Valley of the Kings, Copenhagen to the Arizona desert. I wish I drank whiskey, so I could raise a glass of Amelia's favorite to her marvelous creator. Instead, I'll have a cup of tea, her other favorite beverage, and look forward to many more years of reading Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.