Monday, August 19, 2013

Barbara Mertz, aka Elizabeth Peters

I was saddened to read in the Times Books section over the weekend that the Egyptologist and writer Barbara Mertz had died. Mertz, at age 85, had had a long and prolific career as a writer. In all, she wrote nearly 70 books only two of which, Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt and Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, were published under her own name.

Her career as a fiction writer began in 1966 when she used the pen name (at her agent's request) of Barbara Michaels to write The Master of Blacktower, but it was as Elizabeth Peters, a nom de plume derived from combining her two children's names, that she had her greatest success. It was as Elizabeth Peters that I got to know and love her writing.

Peters wrote mysteries featuring bold and adventurous heroines, but her stories were always based on scholarly topics, usually from the world of archaeology. She was a trained Egyptologist and her most successful series was based mostly in Egypt and featured Amelia Peabody. Peabody was an amateur Egyptologist of the late Victorian/early twentieth century era. She was independent and resourceful and not inclined toward marriage. Nevertheless, she did eventually marry Radcliffe Emerson, who she considered to be the most brilliant Egyptologist of that era when archaeology was brimming with Egyptologists who were called brilliant.

Amelia reigned as the star of 19 books. She and Emerson went on to have a son, who was christened with a European name that was quickly forgotten as everyone called him Ramses and who combined the brilliance of both of his parents and was deeply Egyptian in his outlook. Indeed, one of the things that I found most amenable about the Amelia Peabody series - and I read every one of them! - was the deep empathy and respect which they showed for all things Egyptian, both ancient and modern.

The Peabody-Emerson clan had their Egyptian "family" who assisted them with their archaeological digs. The head of that family and the man in charge of the digs throughout all the early books was Abdullah. He was an important character in the books and he was, in many ways, Amelia's soul-mate and was certainly her best friend. They were so close that not even death could separate them. After Abdullah died, he would often return to Amelia in dreams at times of stress or danger, to comfort her and sometimes to give her clues that would help her solve the mysteries that always seemed to develop in the wake of the Peabody-Emersons' sojourns in Egypt.

Peters' mysteries were always very civilized, in the manner of Agatha Christie, and, as the Times noted in its obituary, they had a "dose of Jane Austen-style romance." Her heroines were always feminists who fought against the sexist mores of their times. She was a graceful, never stodgy writer, who wrote with humor and enthusiasm. Her work afforded me and many, many other readers with uncounted hours of pleasure. I count myself very lucky to have spent all that time in the company of Peters/Peabody.

I couldn't help thinking, as I was reading her obituary, about current events in Egypt. As one who obviously had a deep affection for that troubled country, it must have pained Barbara Mertz/Elizabeth Peters greatly to see what was happening there in recent weeks. Unfortunately, some Egyptian stories cannot be so neatly wrapped up with the good guys always winning as were the inevitable conclusions of all the Amelia Peabody books. Would that it were possible.  

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