The news made national radio and my local paper, as well as numerous literary websites: Barbara Mertz died Thursday, August 8, at the age of 85. “Barbara who?” Many would have been excused for asking this, but I knew exactly who she was.
When I was a teenager, I made a discovery that would’ve been impossible if my local library had not blatantly flouted cataloging rules. In direct contravention of accepted practice, it shelved fiction books by the authors’ real names, not pseudonyms. Want to read Mark Twain? You'd find him in the C’s. Lewis Carroll? D’s. George Eliot was in the E’s, but only because her real name was Mary Anne Evans.
Not, I hasten to add, that I was in the habit of reading 19th-century literary lions at the age of 15. I just cite these as examples. What really made the difference for me, though, was stumbling upon what I thought at the time were the complete works of Barbara Mertz, which I would never have been able to do in a proper library. You see, Barbara Mertz wrote under two pseudonyms: Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.
As Peters, she became rather well-known among historical romance enthusiasts as the author of the Amelia Peabody mysteries, which began with the snort-inducing Crocodile on the Sandbank and ran through some 19 titles to the most recent, A River in the Sky. These chronicled the adventures of the redoubtable amateur archaeologist Amelia Peabody, her often-infuriating husband, Emerson Peabody, and their son, Ramses.
Before Peters created her redoubtable Victorian lady Egyptologist, she wrote several titles that pretty much all followed the same delicious formula. Smart young woman becomes involved in an apparent paranormal mystery, develops a fractious relationship with a handsome young man and solves the mystery after some satisfying hijinks. I think my favorite was Summer of the Dragon, in which the smart-young-woman protagonist, a forensic anthropology student, finds herself on the ranch of a zillionaire with an enthusiasm for crackpot paranormal theories.
Michaels, on the other hand, wrote genuinely chilling ghost stories in which the smart young woman stumbles upon a haunting, develops a relationship with a solid, handsome young man and solves the mystery after multiple scary situations. In my opinion, her finest in this avatar is Ammie, Come Home, in which our protagonist inherits a Georgetown home that’s haunted by a passel of Revolutionary War–era spirits. (It appears that the original Kirkus reviewer was not as taken by this title as I was—phooey on them. They should’ve done what I did—read after dark with only one light on.)
Had I looked in the nonfiction section, I would have learned that Mertz wrote under her own name as well. An Egyptologist by training, she also penned a number of nonfiction works, including Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, the review of which indicates that she honed her tart, readable style on nonfiction before jumping to fiction: “Cutting her way through problems of art, science, architecture, home-life, burials, etc. with a firm, feminine, commonsense logic, she often disagrees with professional views, yet by scrupulously separating fact from personal opinion, and by stating all viewpoints, she gives credibility and a considerable interest to her own conclusions.”
I cannot begin to tally the number of hours I spent with Barbara Mertz, and I will be forever grateful for my library’s antediluvian shelving philosophies.
(Portions of this essay have been adapted from Vicky Smith’s June 6, 2011, blog post, “Romance by the Alphabet.”)
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.