Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dr. Barbara Mertz, trailblazer.

Barbara Mertz, right, with Charlotte MacLeod, 1989
Photo by Elizabeth Foxwell
It is impossible to grasp that the ebullient Barbara Mertz, aka MWA Grand Master Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, has left us at age 85. I first met her when I interviewed her for a University of Maryland journalism class. After 2 hours I emerged, somewhat dazedly (a typical state of affairs in Mertzdom), with a 17-page, single-spaced transcript and a friendship that would endure for nearly 30 years. To her I owe a great deal, not least my career in mystery and—like many other writers—warm memories of her encouragement, support, and singular presence.

Barbara's storming of considerable bastions in her life and career has benefited women from many walks of life as well as mystery readers and writers. When she was a graduate student in Egyptology at the University of Chicago, she was asked, more than once, why she was taking the place of a man, and why was she there anyway, because she was "just going to get married." She was divorced at a time when single parents were regarded as strange creatures, and she worked hard to support two children by publishing a minimum of two books per year and reviewing books. Well into her seventies, Barbara was descending into Egyptian tombs and maintaining a schedule that would make someone a quarter of her age relapse onto a Victorian fainting couch. Always embroiled in some offbeat enterprise, she once took me with her to purchase a cowboy hat, because she was embarking on a tour with Sharyn McCrumb and Joan Hess that would feature their country-music song stylings.

Given today's popularity of intrepid Victorian archaeologist Amelia Peabody Emerson and her inimitable spouse and son, as well as Barbara's Agatha Award for the Jacqueline Kirby novel Naked Once More, it is easy to forget that she had to fight to write humorous mysteries. Unease existed in the publishing world about reader receptivity to humor, and she had to adopt the Peters pseudonym for these books while maintaining the Michaels pen name for her twists on the Gothic novel. She created a stir with Borrower of the Night when art-historian heroine Vicky Bliss ditched two handsome men for a more attractive new job.

She was a tireless advocate for those she felt were underappreciated in mystery publishing (a case in point was her beloved friend, Charlotte MacLeod, with whom she sang Edwardian songs over the telephone). These activities included the founding of Malice Domestic Ltd., to recognize the traditional mystery that she felt suffered from a lack of critical attention, despite its substantial readership. Perhaps because of her own experiences, she honored the struggles of the women's movement in her work (for example, Amelia is based on popular author and Egypt Exploration Fund cofounder Amelia B. Edwards, and Amelia plans to join the Pankhursts in The Ape Who Guards the Balance). She shared a love for the purpler prose of the mystery genre with writers such as K. K. Beck (The Last Camel Died at Noon is a veritable paean to the works of H. Rider Haggard). Get-togethers at her home invariably featured recommended reading; I remember a particularly spirited discussion with Barbara and Dorothy Cannell on Charlotte Armstrong's The Chocolate Cobweb.

Barbara never forgot the value of mentoring, because, I think, she had experienced its benefits herself. She always mentioned the thrill of receiving a fan letter from the best-selling Phyllis A. Whitney, who went on to become a treasured friend. Barbara endowed a scholarship at Hood College (MD) to nurture mystery writers of color. She knew the crucial effects of a kind word of encouragement when words were not coming to a writer, because, even with her considerable gifts, she knew these frustrations firsthand. "I just sit there," she said, "putting down the words, gritting my teeth and grimacing."

Under her own name she wrote two books that are staples of undergraduate Egyptology courses: Red Land, Black Land and Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs. The latter book is one of the reference works that galaxy-hopping Egyptologist James Spader takes with him in the film Stargate. An ominous rumbling was known to emanate from her if someone mentioned the film version of her novel Ammie, Come Home (The House That Would Not Die, 1970). She did not summon much more enthusiasm for the 1996 TV movie of The Crying Child with Mariel Hemingway—as author Susan Rogers Cooper observed, Barbara's loving depictions of old houses would have been distinctly at odds with the filmmaker's gusto in destroying the house in the movie. These less than happy experiences with Hollywood probably explain the lack of a celluloid Amelia Peabody Emerson or Vicky Bliss, although offers cropped up over the years.

Barbara's recipe for soup in Cooking with Malice Domestic (that she said would "feed a beleaguered writer for several days") included the hard-to-dispute instruction, "cook it . . . for a long time until it's done." We should heed her advice on whatever we choose to work. She certainly did.

Further resources
Notice of Barbara Mertz's Professional Achievement Award, University of Chicago, 2004

• Barbara Michaels, "On Following a Career in Egyptology"

• Elizabeth Peters and Kristen Whitbread, eds., Amelia Peabody's Egypt: A Compendium

• Elizabeth Peters, "Amelia Peabody's Egypt" event at the Library of Congress, Nov. 2003

• Elizabeth Foxwell, "Novels of Many Shadows: The Messages of Barbara Michaels," The Armchair Detective, Summer 1996.

5 comments:

Msmstry said...

Beth, what a lovely tribute to a delightful woman!

Lise McClendon said...

That was so poignant, Beth. What a wonderful tribute to a remarkable woman.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Many thanks, Msmstry and Lise, for kind comments.

LOTL said...

Very well said Beth -- and I still treasure my autographed copy of your article on Barbara!

Theresa Freese said...

I was lucky enough to see Dr. Barbara Mertz at a book signing in 1994 in San Diego. She was giving a talk and then took questions, I thought she'd been influenced by Mark Twain and Thorne Smith, she enjoyed the Twain reference, but said her parents wouldn't let her read Thorne Smith. One generation later made a difference, we kept snagging "The Bishop's Jaegers" from Dad until all of us read it.