the imprudence of standing in the way of a woman on a mission
August 8, 2013 8:47 PM   Subscribe

Barbara Mertz, whose writing career encompassed over sixty books and three nom de plumes, has died at the age of 85. As Barbara Mertz, she wrote scholarly books on Egyptology after receiving a doctorate from the from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago in 1951, but then turned her hand to writing fiction under the names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.

Along the way, she created some fantastic heroines, including the intrepid archeologist Amelia Peabody, the tart librarian and author Jacqueline Kirby, and the art historian Vicky Bliss, who was frequently embroiled in capers due to the less-than-law-abiding Sir John Smythe. As Barbara Michaels, she wrote stories with supernatural thrills, including the Georgetown trilogy which feature old family secrets and haunted quilts and a little smidgen of romance in between. Her romances rarely got more explicit than a few steamy kisses or innuendo before she tactfully drew the curtain, but as she put it, “I have a theory about sex scenes,” she said. “I start them on track and let the reader’s imagination take over. One of my biggest compliments was, ‘You never use a word that would make my grandmother blush. But that tent just steams.’ ”

Most of all, however, her heroines were smart, determined, and brave whether they were pursuing the gold of Troy or the lost tomb of an Egyptian princess.

A complete list of her books as well as the multiple awards she won can be found here.
posted by PussKillian (39 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Aw, my mom is going to be very, very put out by this turn of events. As am I, for that matter. Good books with good old-fashioned bluestocking heroines.
posted by padraigin at 8:55 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh God I am so sad! No new Vicky Bliss! No new Amelia Peabody! I know the saddest part is that a real person has died but I am super sad about these things too. Thank you, Dr./Ms. Mertz/Peters/Michaels, for the happy times you have brought me when I sat reading Amelia Peabody books in the Oriental Institute and thought of you there, getting your Ph.D. You have given me and a lot of other readers many wonderful friends and memories. I guess now we're never going to meet and be friends like I keep daydreaming.

I'm actually re-reading some of her early books currently; I'm in the middle of Legend in Green Velvet.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:56 PM on August 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm going to start with the Seventh Sinner. I poke away at a little first draft for a book, and I honestly think that if I could capture about a third of her skill with character and dialogue and story I'd be thrilled to death
posted by PussKillian at 8:58 PM on August 8, 2013

I just re-read that! Then I was like "What shall I do next?" and lo, the answer was "Read The Dead Sea Cipher" so I did and now here we all are. I am saving the Amelia Peabody for a vacation later this month.

I just came back again to say how sad this makes me. It makes me really, really sad. A point Amelia Peabody makes in at least one book is that smart people need to rest their brains too and I think Elizabeth Peters really got that; her books are well-written enough to be fun and not distracting so I can actually get absorbed in them but also silly and exciting and adventurous enough to be restful. Something fun and well-written that helps you rest your brain can mean a great deal; life is often hard and exhausting and scary and Elizabeth Peters has helped make mine a little better.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:05 PM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I read her nonfiction Egypt book and sampled the fiction - a great writer and a fascinating scholar obviously in love with the field she was writing about. Sad to see her go.
posted by AdamCSnider at 9:06 PM on August 8, 2013

Indeed, no new Jacqueline Kirby or Vicky Bliss! I loved them: smart and funny and so sarcastic, and they took no crap.

I like Barbara Michaels' work as well, but the Peters novels were always more fun.
posted by suelac at 9:13 PM on August 8, 2013

Oh, man, I am so knocked back by this news. I loved her so much. I remember the day, having devoured everything that was out by Barbara Michaels, finding out that she was Elizabeth Peters as well. I have like nine thousand of her books.

Thank you, Ms. Mertz. You were a huge influence on me and a great source of pleasure in my life.


posted by OolooKitty at 9:15 PM on August 8, 2013

Seriously, my Christmas present coup a few years ago was sending my mom an Amazon box of Barbara Mertz's more serious Egyptology books, since one of the reasons my mom loved Elizabeth Peters so much was the fun Egypt connection. Mom was absolutely delighted to delve further into her love of Egypt with a familiar writer.
posted by padraigin at 9:18 PM on August 8, 2013

I'm sorry she's gone. I'm reading the 16th Amelia Peabody novel right now and both my sister and I have been immersed her her Egypt for weeks. My sister was just inspired to buy a parasol today! And I have been addressing one of my cats as "The Great Cat of Ra" all week.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:36 PM on August 8, 2013

posted by Iridic at 9:47 PM on August 8, 2013

Shouldn't it be noms de plume?
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:06 PM on August 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

. . .
posted by gingerest at 12:46 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just re-read that! Then I was like "What shall I do next?" and lo, the answer was "Read The Dead Sea Cipher" so I did and now here we all are. I am saving the Amelia Peabody for a vacation later this month.

Noooooooo. Like others, this makes me really sad. I've been reading her work for more than 2/3 of my life and she's one of my go-to "I need to revisit an engaging and comforting old book friend" authors.

Spoilers for a 40-year-old novel... I remember when all of the fuss about The Da Vinci Code happened. Accusations about who stole the idea from whom when, and the whole time I was thinking "Hah, Elizabeth Peters did this better and more deftly DECADES ago."

I started with Wait for What Will Come (Michaels) when I was about 11, drawn by the alliterative mystery and romanticism of the title. The title for The Last Camel Died at Noon (Peters) caught my eye about a year later, not realizing it was the same author at first, then I devoured every single Elizabeth Peters in my local library. In addition to writing some great heroines who are smart, her books have a wonderful sense of place. I can picture the balcony of the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo, the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, or a caldera in the Aegean. And I always loved learning bits of history, whether about Queen Margaret of Denmark, the discovery of Schliemann's gold, Riemanschneider and the Peasants' Rebellion, or even just the fact that people in DC had passionate feelings about one quarterback replacing another.

Schmidt? I think I'll miss you most of all...

(I also thought of her when reading the recent thread about the _______ Daughter books. The Wizard's Daughter, The Sea King's Daughter...)
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 1:37 AM on August 9, 2013

No! :(
posted by cairdeas at 1:41 AM on August 9, 2013

I also started reading her books around 11 or 12. My dad read a lot and if he finished something he thought I would like, it would appear at the door to my room. I associate Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Kingsolver so strongly with that time in my life, the time of feeling like life was just beginning to open up to me, wondering what would happen in my life, who I would meet, what kinds of adventures I would have...
posted by cairdeas at 1:45 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm very sad about this.


A long time ago when I'd caught up with her back catalog and was reading the new Amelia Peabody books as they came out, she'd been laying on the anvilicious foreshadowing with a trowel (heh) about Abdullah and his heart for a while, and I was like, yeah, ok, thanks for the heads-up. Abdullah won't be with us much longer. Got it. And I was devouring the latest book, ignoring my kid, etc., everything normal, story-wise, and when I turned a page, I think two pages flicked, and my eyes took in 'Am I dying, Sitt?'. And I actually, I don't know, gasped? Sharp intake of air. And I slammed the book shut and had to run to the only room we had that had a door to shut, and I sat in the bathroom in the dark sobbing and thinking that somehow he wasn't dead until I turned that page, and wondering about the nature of dead fictional characters and my sanity.

I actually went back to school as a mature student in archaeology in part because of her influence.

Regarding the whole 'who stole what from whom' thing upthread, check out Agatha Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit - there's a bit of overlap with the early/backstory of Amelia Peabody.

Also, Sir William Flinders Petrie is stranger than fiction, and anyone who loves Emerson might love (the IRL) Petrie.

Alsoalso, Amelia Peabody fans might enjoy reading Agatha Christie's autobiography.

A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of all good things.

I'm going to go cry in my coffee now.
posted by you must supply a verb at 2:09 AM on August 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Totally tangential, but one of my local libraries instisted on filing Barbara Michaels books under Mertz in their Alphabetical By Author system. Not even a note to redirect people. And they overwrote 'Mertz' on the spine and title pages and all. Like someone was very very angry that Barbara Mertz was trying to get away with something and they were, by God! not going to let her. So strange.
posted by you must supply a verb at 2:16 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh I love her books so much, both the Michaels and the Peters. I found the Sea King's Daughter around 10 or 11 and went on to read them all. I've got a weakness for the whole "old house/modern heroine/supernatural odd stuff happening" thing she did so so well. I am sad.
posted by Cocodrillo at 3:44 AM on August 9, 2013

So sad! I loved Elizabeth Peters' mysteries!

posted by Rosie M. Banks at 5:03 AM on August 9, 2013

May her Abdullah greet her.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:28 AM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Damn, I loved her books, especially Vicki Bliss.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 5:34 AM on August 9, 2013

Oh, damn. I remember saying just the other day as I read a fiesty-Victorian-lady-with-weaponized-parasol book that she'd done it earlier and better.

posted by marginaliana at 5:56 AM on August 9, 2013


She gave me so many happy hours with Amelia Peabody, and not a bit of a role model as a ninth grader interested in archaeology.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:23 AM on August 9, 2013

If I've got the link right, this should be Diane Rehm interviewing Elizabeth Peters in 2001. It's a good interview.
posted by you must supply a verb at 6:36 AM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Drat. Count me as another person who really loved her Vicky Bliss series. Particularly the character of Schmidt.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 6:49 AM on August 9, 2013

I'm just in the midst of rereading the Amelia Peabody series.

posted by hydrobatidae at 6:52 AM on August 9, 2013

Aw, this makes me sad. Loved all of her books! Maybe I'll go back and reread the Peabody books.
posted by clone boulevard at 7:22 AM on August 9, 2013

. The only books I've read of hers are her scholarly "Red Land, Black Land," and "Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs." They are great reads. I had no idea she had pen names.
posted by cass at 7:36 AM on August 9, 2013

This is such a pity. Her fiction books were the perfect light but smart escapist fiction set in a familiar world (even if the locales were fabulous travel destinations). I loved that Jacqueline Kirby has absolutely no intention of or interest in getting re-married. Romance is all fine and good, but she has things to do and people to organize and mysteries to solve. I appreciated that Vicky Bliss dealt with the fact that people constantly underestimated her because of her appearance/gender. I liked the historicity of the bold, determined, adventurous Victorian woman.

I know someone who had the luck and pleasure of traveling with her in Egypt a few years ago, and have been jealous of it even before I learned that she was a wonderful, interesting person in real life, too.
posted by julen at 7:39 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I too devoured all the Amelia Peabody books when I was in high school; I don't think I've read them since. The only Vicky Bliss novel I read was Trojan Gold, which I loved. Mom did a big bulk shopping mission once a month when we were growing up -- out to the commissary at an Air Force base -- and she would always buy each of us a paperback book while she was there. That was one of them. (The other one I remember: The Princess Bride.)

I haven't even thought about those books in so long. Now I want to go read them all again.

posted by epersonae at 8:11 AM on August 9, 2013

From the front page of her website:
Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters & Barbara Michaels) died peacefully at home early in the morning of Aug. 8, 2013. She had put up a very tough battle against cancer for over a decade, in a style worthy of Amelia. She preferred not to be fussed over, and so did not make her illness public. She died as she had told everyone she wanted to – unexpectedly, in her sleep. Shortly before her death, she had written a line to be posted on this webpage: “At 85, Elizabeth Peters (aka Barbara Michaels) is enjoying her cats, her garden, lots of chocolate, and not nearly enough gin.”
posted by you must supply a verb at 8:35 AM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

posted by warble at 9:21 AM on August 9, 2013

posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:43 AM on August 9, 2013

One of my favorite authors. The Vicky Bliss books I have reread probably more than any other books, and I am very grateful they exist. Vicky, John, Schmidt -- some of my oldest and truest book-friends. My favorite of the Barbara Michaels was always House of Many Shadows, where the (rather fragile, but still sufficiently plucky) heroine goes to live for a bit in an old house in Pennsylvania Dutch country only to find that the house's past is slipping into the present.

Many, many thanks to a matchless author. Requiescat in pace.

posted by lysimache at 10:51 AM on August 9, 2013


Amelia Peabody is one of my favorite fictional characters, and I am sad that her creator has gone. I have never read some of her other works, but this thread has inspired me to do so.
posted by ElleElle at 10:54 AM on August 9, 2013

“At 85, Elizabeth Peters (aka Barbara Michaels) is enjoying her cats, her garden, lots of chocolate, and not nearly enough gin.”

This is exactly what I would have expected from her.

Good bye, dear lady.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:24 PM on August 9, 2013

I found Elizabeth Peters first, then was really, really happy when I found Peters was also Barbara Michaels: more books by a favorite author! Discovering both Peters and Michaels were actually Barbara Mertz thrilled me; I've always secretly hoped she had yet another Aspect hiding somewhere, with yet more books to devour.

Thanks, Dr. Mertz, from a fan no matter what name you used.
posted by easily confused at 6:49 AM on August 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I read the one where Ramses and -- well, I won't take the surprise away -- the one where Ramses falls in love, I couldn't fall asleep because I was so happy for him. She was that good of a writer.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:07 AM on August 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ha! I was so jealous and angry when Ramses fell in love...
posted by cairdeas at 11:08 AM on August 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

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