Like most historians, I am a reader. Throughout my life I’ve been teased because I’ll read anything, including the cereal box if that’s all that’s available. And every time the Air Force moved our family, one of the first things we did at our new home was to get library cards.
Since the time I was a pre-teen, one of my favorite writers has been Barbara Mertz, who wrote fiction as both Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters. She wrote two non-fiction popular history books about ancient Egypt and then turned to historical and contemporary fiction from 1966 until her death in 2013. Her books included humor, suspense, gothic atmosphere, romance, the supernatural, adventure and mystery. They also nurtured my love of history and travel.
Her most popular series, written as Elizabeth Peters, was her Amelia Peabody series, set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Egypt during the Golden Age of archaeology. But even in her contemporary work, she often used historical elements in her mysteries. And those mysteries took place all over the globe. These books made me long for my own adventures in Italy, Sweden, Germany, England, Mexico, Scotland and Denmark, just like her heroines. Not to mention learning history without even realizing that I was learning.
Barbara Mertz (1927-2013) was born and raised in Illinois. As a teenager on a trip to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago she discovered a love of Egypt and a desire to be an archaeologist. It was there that she earned her doctorate in Egyptology in 1952. Finding it difficult as a young woman to find a job in academia in 1950s America, she worked as a secretary until her husband’s government job sent them to Germany. It was there she began writing.
There are many aspects to enjoy in Mertz’s books, but what meant the most to me as a young girl were her intelligent heroines and the fact that she never talked down to her readers. She included allusions to literature and history that if I didn’t understand, I would research just so that I could get the joke. The banter between her characters represented the kind of smart, funny conversations that I wanted to have. My sister and I used to quote her dialogue the way our kids quote movies.
Although many of her books had romance elements, she never created perfect characters. Her heroes were not millionaire business moguls or Navy SEALS, as is common in many current romance novels. Mertz wrote ordinary men with flaws, but they were always smart, always kind, and always fun. In two of her popular series, she made a cowardly charming art thief (Vicki Bliss mysteries) and a grumpy archaeologist (Amelia Peabody mysteries) the yardstick for heroes for many of her fans.
Reading her books, it’s obvious that Mertz loved not only history and travel, but also cats, the Washington Redskins, politics, vintage clothing, and gardening. But she also dealt with serious issues. She wrote about the drug trade in The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits (Mexico) and reality-challenged pseudo-historians in Summer of the Dragon (Arizona). Her stories involved art forgery, a variety of international crimes, politics and the theft of historic artifacts.
I can’t say how well her books stand the test of time because it seems they have always been a part of my life. These are my comfort reads and are so familiar to me. If you haven’t read Michaels or Peters before, I recommend the following (in no particular order):
- The Camelot Caper – Elizabeth Peters 1969, chasing and being chased through Cornwall with King Arthur as a plot element.
- The Copenhagen Connection – Elizabeth Peters 1982, a fun romp through Denmark chasing a bathrobe.
- Legend in Green Velvet – Elizabeth Peters 1976, being chased through rural Scotland with a man hiding behind a beard.
- Patriot’s Dream – Barbara Michaels 1976, an eerie connection with characters in 1776 during the American bicentennial.
- Ammie Come Home – Barbara Michaels 1968, haunted house in Georgetown.
For many hours of enjoyment and learning, I thank Dr. Barbara Mertz.