Author Barbara Mertz gives her fans a parting gift
Christina Startt was a high school student in 2008 when she discovered the books of Barbara Mertz. She was instantly drawn into the fictional world of Amelia Peabody, the late 19th-century Egyptologist who was the main character in many of Mertz's books.
"I read them straight through," she said.
It didn't matter that Mertz, who lived near Frederick, was by then 80 years old, and nearing the end of her writing career. After Startt read all of the Amelia Peabody novels, she moved on to Mertz's other mysteries.
Now Startt has one more Amelia book to read: "The Painted Queen," which Mertz, writing as Elizabeth Peters, started before her death at the age of 85 in 2013.
The novel will be released by Harper Collins on July 25.
Startt and Chuck Roberts are two of Mertz's millions of fans who awaited each new book with enthusiasm. The pair will host the Frederick version of the book release party for Mertz's last book, which was completed by mystery author and Mertz fan Joan Hess.
Roberts, owner of Wonder Book, became friends with Mertz when he opened the large used bookstore in 1980. He was in his early 20s, and Mertz was not yet the superstar author she would become. "Those two would talk books and drink gin together," said Beth Mertz, Barbara's daughter. "She always had an amazing group of people around her."
Mertz graduated from the University of Chicago in 1947 with a degree in archaeology. She went on to study Egyptology in graduate school and received her Ph.D. from the college's Oriental Institute in 1952.
At first, she didn't want to write books, even though she loved to read. She just wanted to be an archaeologist. But it was 1952, and archeology jobs for women were tough to get, even for a woman who had graduated from a world-famous school of Egyptology. Most of her professors assumed she'd marry and raise children.
And she did. Raising her children was one of the most challenging, tiring, rewarding, demanding jobs in the world, she once wrote. Eventually, however, she decided to try writing a mystery. It didn't sell, but she found an agent, and he suggested she write something other than mysteries. She wrote and published several nonfiction books on Egyptology.
But Mertz also loved mysteries, and found she had a knack for storytelling. The books of Barbara Michaels were introduced in 1966. These were mysteries with a dash of the supernatural.
Later, she introduced the novels of Elizabeth Peters, a combination of her children's names. It was as Peters that she created her alter ego, Amelia Peabody. Peabody was a Victorian archaeologist, and Mertz described Peabody's work with the preciseness only a fellow archaeologist could muster. For those not familiar with archeology, Mertz drew her readers into the novels so well they felt as though they were making discoveries alongside Peabody.
Mertz raised her children in the Washington area and divorced in 1969. When her children were grown, she bought an old farmhouse near Libertytown, and it was there that she continued her writing career.
When not at home writing, Mertz made trips to her beloved Egypt as well as dozens of other countries. She became a grandmother to six. At home, she worked in her gardens, enjoyed her cats, and poked around nearby vintage clothing stores.
Drawn to Egyptian history
Startt's first Amelia Peabody novel, which she found in her aunt's house, was set about halfway through the series. Startt worked her way through the series while attending Hood College. Eventually, she bought all the Amelia books at Wonder Book. While buying the books, she learned that Roberts knew Mertz and was a fellow fan.
"What drew me in was I always liked Egyptian art history," she said. "The characters are so much fun."
In her sophomore year in college, Startt visited Egypt on an archaeological tour and saw many of the places Mertz had written about. "It was so cool to see what you'd read about," she said.
Startt eventually joined Facebook and Twitter groups centered around Mertz's books and connected with fans around the world. When she heard about the new book, she was excited. She was happy Hess was chosen to finish the project.
"I love her books," Startt said. "You can tell she's a kindred spirit."
Advocate for women
Mertz had many kindred spirits. Her daughter Beth recalled Mertz's efforts to get women mystery writers together. Mertz formed the group Malice Domestic, for women mystery authors in the Washington area, a group which still exists.
"She helped start Malice Domestic because she thought men were getting all the prizes," Beth Mertz recalled.
"She grew up in a time when women were going through so much stuff," her daughter said. Mertz later started a scholarship at Hood for women writers, a scholarship which still exists today.
During much of her mother's life, Beth said she never realized how important her mother was to her fans. "We probably didn't tune into that so much, because she was our mother," she said. "But since she passed, we have learned about all these people who are such fans."
Beth was not someone who ever used Facebook or Twitter until she realized her mother's fans were using social media as a way to connect.
"I was so excited when Christina came up with ideas for this event," she said. "It is really nice when other people are still celebrating your mom. It will be special to share the new book with other people who live and breathe these books."
Beth learned of two Mertz fans who met through social media. They traveled to England together and on Facebook posted a photo of themselves at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London.
Her mother's ability to connect people of various ages and backgrounds always inspired Beth. "Book lovers bridge anything you can think of," she said. "Age, gender, socioeconomic status. She always had an amazing group of people around her."
One of those was Hess, who finished "The Painted Queen." Hess was intimidated by the idea of finishing Mertz's last book. "Joan was at Mom's house a lot," Beth recalled. "The two of them went off to Egypt together."
Beth recalled her mother finishing a book for a fellow mystery-writing friend who had developed Alzheimer's disease. "That was the sort of society they created," she said. "It's like this women's tradition for this group."
Hess took three years to finish the book. While writing, Hess had a bout with cancer, but is now considered cancer-free. Another Egyptologist friend of Mertz's provided Hess with the archaeological expertise she needed.
Easy to spend time with
Roberts considered himself lucky to be friends with Mertz. "We liked a lot of the same things, books and dogs and cats," he said. "It was easy for me to go over there and spend time with her. It was a thrill. She was a genius. You go out there and you feel like you've gone to another world."
Books, statues and gardens filled her farmhouse and its surroundings. Inside were cozy book nooks, shelf after shelf full of books, a woodstove which kept the house warm in the winter and a solarium filled with plants that thrived in the sunshine.
Outside were gardens, paths, a pond and inviting benches and chairs to sit in and read. He said it looked like a scene from the "Lord of the Rings."
Both gin-lovers, they would sip from glasses of gin while they talked. "I would go on a trip anywhere in the world and look for a gin from that place to bring back," he said. This was in the days before local spirits were popular, and Roberts often had to hunt to find local gin.
He enjoyed meeting other authors who came to see Mertz. "She would have these parties, and a dozen authors would come," he said. "All of these people whose books you've read, all hanging out and gossiping about other authors."
Roberts, who has read all of Mertz' books, got first editions of each book and had Mertz autograph them.
Mertz lives on, through her books and her estate. Although it was surrounded by beautiful gardens, Mertz always had plans to make it even more beautiful. The current residents have put in native plant gardens, and are adding new gardens to the property frequently.
The house now belongs to Ray Johnson, a world-famous Egyptologist who is also director of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute at Chicago House, Luxor, Egypt, and his partner, James Heidel.
"They have rejuvenated her place," Roberts said.
"I think there's a kind of magic about this stuff around my mom," Beth said. "I think it will keep going."
-- Sent from my Linux system.