Sunday, March 28, 2010

Elizabeth Peters

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After the positive response to my entry on Charlotte MacLeod last week, I'm posting this rather long appreciation of Charlotte’s best friend, which I wrote in April 2001 for Mystery Scene. (It continues past her picture.)

Elizabeth Peters

In 1990, at Malice Domestic, Naked Once More by Elizabeth Peters was nominated for an Agatha. Among the other nominees were Carolyn Hart, Sarah Caudwell, Gillian Roberts and me. I'm not proud of how I reacted to the news but you have to understand that I had been writing for twenty years, this was the first time a book of mine had been nominated for anything, and my then-publisher seemed to be losing interest in my work. A win would surely help but obviously I didn't stand a chance without a little psychic help. I didn't know Ms. Peters well at the time, though I had heard that her real name was Barbara Mertz.


I found a battered Barbie doll at a local flea market. I piled her hair on top of her head in a dishelved bun similar to one I'd seen in Ms. Mertz's photographs and secured it with a large hatpin.

Through the skull.

I fashioned wire-rimmed glasses, similar to hers.

I concocted a lace dress fashioned after the vintage clothes Ms. Mertz was known to favor. These two were held on by more large pearl-tipped hatpins — one through the heart, the others best left unsaid. I didn't have any chicken blood but cherry juice produced the same effect.

Unfortunately, her mojo was stronger than mine and she carried off the teapot in triumph. After the awards ceremony, I took my Voodoo Barbie to the celebration in her room and laid it at her feet. "Had I won," I said, "this would have been buried at a suitable crossroads on a moonless night, but since you won–"

She seized it gleefully, informed me that I was seriously demented, and pointed me toward the Bombay gin.

When Elizabeth Peters first began writing about Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson in Crocodile on the Sandbank in 1975, not a lot of notice was taken. It took six years before their second adventure appeared, then another four years for the third.

Part of the reason for such a slow start was because Elizabeth Peters was juggling two other series: one about Jacqueline Kirby, a middle-aged librarian who became a romance novelist; another with Vicky Bliss, a smart-mouthed art historian. But the main reason those first Amelia books came out so slowly was because Elizabeth Peters also wrote the extremely popular and extremely prolific Barbara Michaels. By now, most mystery afficianados know that Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters are the pseudonyms of Barbara Mertz, who earned a Ph.D. in Egyptology but never got a chance to use it in the field because married women weren't allowed to go on digs back then.

In comparing his profitable fiction with his decidedly non-profitable poetry, Robert Graves once said, "Novels are the show dogs which I breed to support my cats."

Like Graves, Barbara Mertz found herself loving her metaphorical cats better than her income-producing dogs. The Michaels books are touching, suspenseful, utterly professional, as are the Jacqueline Kirby and Vicky Bliss novels. But her heart was entirely captured by Amelia Peabody, who got to do what she herself had never been allowed to do–-go to Egypt and excavate pyramids.

I had borrowed Crocodile from the library, but somehow missed the others, so I didn't really become aware of Amelia Peabody as a force of nature until 1986 and the publication of the fourth novel, Lion in the Valley. I was browsing in a Raleigh bookstore when, from the next aisle, I heard one woman telling another about a mutual friend of theirs who'd evidently had a son since they'd last seen her. A very precocious son. A son who'd done some of the cutest things with old bones he found on the compost heap. I couldn't quite make out the boy's name. It sounded like Ramses, but whoever heard of a Raleigh child named Ramses? Eventually, it became clear that they were speaking of a fictional child and I quit lurking behind the bookshelves, determined to learn just who had created such an interesting little boy.

I went home with all four books that day and read them one after the other, captivated by the dry wit and arch language that so often understated the calamities breaking over the Emersons' heads. Anyone can write serious books of blood and stomach-turning violence, but to write humorously without slopping over into slapstick takes true talent.

In the eight books that have followed, Ramses has gone from a prococious and determined child to young manhood. A husband now, he and his wife now are drawn into ever more tense and dangerous situations in the Egypt of World War I and their investigations parallel those of his concerned parents.

Barbara Mertz meticulously researches every historical and geographical detail of her books, making several trips out to Egypt to document the physical feel of the land and its pyramids and tombs, collecting travel diaries and guidebooks of the period, poring over old campaign diagrams. Like every writer of historical fiction, she cleverly blends the imagined with the factual, but if she says that a real general or a real Arab chieftan moved his troops on a certain day to take a specific town or village, you may rely on her accuracy. June will see the publication of Lord of the Silent, the thirteenth Peabody and Emerson adventure.

Several years ago, when Ms. Mertz's gothic suspense novels were selling better than her mysteries, it was suggested that the Amelia Peabody books carry as their byline "Barbara Michaels, writing as Elizabeth Peters." These days, some of those older Barbara Michaels titles are being reissued with the byline "Elizabeth Peters, writing as Barbara Michaels."

And her humor remains intact. Voodoo Barbie lives on a shelf in her office, next to a lifetime of awards, including her Grand Master from Mystery Writers of America and that Agatha teapot.

Perhaps if I hadn't used cherry juice—?

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