Sunday, August 11, 2013

Elizabeth Peters & Barbara Michaels

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.


  1. A lovely tribute, Lisa. I've enjoyed her Amelia Peabody books for years and have only just started reading her non-series mysteries, which have proven a delight so far. It's awfully sad to know that she is gone but I am thankful that she was such a prolific writer and that I still have so many of her books left to discover.

  2. I haven't read them in a while, but I always enjoyed the Amelia Peabodys! I agree with Claire-this is a lovely tribute.

  3. You've really captured the delights of her books so well, Lisa. I have read most of the Amelias and a few Vicky Blisses, but happily I have a lot more of her work to read. Her heroines are such wonderfully strong women - it is sad that there will be no more.

  4. I had a friend (who unfortunately died far too young) who was always trying to get me to read Elizabeth peters. Joan was an avid crime reader and also an amateur archeologist, so the Peabody series was right up her street. I had forgotten all about them, so thanks for bringing them back to my attention.

  5. What a great post--I enjoyed reading about how Barbara Mertz's books intersected with your life and enhanced it at key points.

    I've only read the Elizabeth Peabody books, but loved them and her as a character. I think I would like the Vicky Bliss novels too--sounds like a character I would enjoy.

    Thanks for this great tribute to an author whose works brought such joy to so many.

  6. It is always such a shock when any author dies. Though I haven't read her books, as a librarian I was saddened to learn of Mertz's death. She's brought joy to so many readers, many of whom I have encountered in the library. I plan to do a little display in her honor this week, featuring her books. I know I would like the Amelia Peabody books and plan to start the series someday.

  7. A lovely tribute to one of my longtime favourite authors. I particularly loved the Barbara Michaels stories and way back in my librarian days they were tremendously popular but seem to be hard to find these days. Would be wonderful if they were republished.

  8. Thank you all for your wonderful comments!

    Claire, I still have some of her books to read myself (including a few on the TBR stacks) - and then the fun of re-reading.

    Audrey, I am always drawn back to Amelia. I've lost count of how many times I've read some of those books.

    vicki, thank you for tweeting my post - I need to read the other one you included. It's wonderful to see so much appreciation for her, so many readers!

    Alex, archaeology definitely runs through the Peters books, not just in the Amelia series - just last year I read one about working in Arizona. There's a lovely variety in her books.

    Jane, the Vicky books are great fun, and they always make me want to jump on a plane for Germany! I hadn't realized until I read one of the obituaries that Barbara Mertz lived in Germany herself for some time, which explains the vivid sense of place in those books.

    Anbolyn, I think that's a lovely idea, a display in her honor. It might encourage someone to try her books! I know you don't always like mysteries, but I think you'd enjoy Amelia & Emerson - they're really funny, and they're light-hearted Victorian stories.

    Cat, many of the covers have a line about her being so popular that the libraries had to keep her books under lock & key. I think all the Amelias are in print still, but not the other Peters books, let alone the Michaels, unfortunately.

  9. What a lovely tribute. I've only read one Elizabeth Peters book - the first in the Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank - but have always intended continuing with the series. I was sorry to hear about her death but am grateful that I still have so many of her books to look forward to.

  10. Thank you, Helen. You have so many wonderful books to discover just in the Amelia series, let alone all the others! I almost envy you :)

  11. I was so sad to hear about this! You really get to the heart of what I love about these books.

  12. elizabeth, I was glad I had someplace to write about her and what her books have meant to me. I so wish I could have met her - from everything I've heard & read, she was a hoot!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!