Friday, August 09, 2013

R.I.P. Barbara Mertz

By Emily Langer Washington Post:

Barbara Mertz, an erstwhile Egyptologist better known to millions of readers as Barbara Michaels or Elizabeth Peters, the noms de plume on the covers of her dozens of top-selling historical mysteries and romantic thrillers, died Aug. 8 at her home near Frederick. She was 85.
Her daughter, Elizabeth Mertz, confirmed her death and said she did not yet know the cause.

Dr. Mertz was one of the most popular writers of her era and genres. Her oeuvre encompassed ad ven ture, romance, history, the supernatural and timeless themes such as the imprudence of standing in the way of a woman on a mission. She churned out books with extraordinary speed, once remarking that she had lost count of them sometime around the publication of her 50th volume.
She wrote more than two dozen novels as Barbara Michaels, the pseudonym under which she made her fiction debut with “The Master of Blacktower” in 1966, and more than three dozen as Elizabeth Peters. Those books included a long-running series about the parasol-toting Victorian pyramid explorer Amelia Peabody.
“Between Amelia Peabody and Indiana Jones, it’s Amelia — in wit and daring — by a landslide,” author Paul Theroux once wrote in the New York Times.


On AMMIE, COME HOME by Barbara Michaels
Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels) passed away August 8. Her AMMIE, COME HOME, written as Barbara Michaels, is my all-time favorite book and helped me through a difficult time in my life. When I wrote an essay about it for Jim Huang’s Mystery Muses: 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers, Barbara (who I’d never met) sent me a handwritten note saying she was glad the book hadn’t been forgotten. Bless her–neither she nor her books will be. 
Copyright Sandra Balzo  2006
AMMIE, COME HOME (by Barbara Michaels)
By Sandra Balzo
When I was asked the question, I didn’t hesitate:  AMMIE, COME HOME by Barbara Michaels is the book that inspired me to become a writer.
What I didn’t know, as I sat down to write this, was….why.
AMMIE, COME HOME is one of 29 novels written under the pseudonym “Barbara Michaels,” by Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Barbara Mertz. Mertz may be better known for her New York Times Bestsellers penned as “Elizabeth Peters,” but it’s the Michaels books I treasure.
AMMIE, COME HOME is what we mystery buffs call a “woo-woo.” Woo-woo…like a ghost—get it? I got it, and I loved it. So did a lot of other people. In fact, the book has been called the best American supernatural mystery of the 20th century.
The story involves Ruth Bennett, owner of an elegant Georgetown home, and her niece Sara, who is staying with Ruth while attending college. One night Sara starts exhibiting behavior that can be explained as either possession or, well…insanity. The book, as reviewers have said, is “dripping with atmosphere,” and downright “chilling.” But under the chills and the atmosphere, AMMIE is a story of the unlikely alliance–Ruth, Sara’s scruffy boyfriend Bruce, and college professor Pat MacDougal—that tries to save the girl.
I vividly remember reading it the very first time. I had checked the book out of the library and I devoured it the moment I got home. I can still hear the crackle of the plastic-covered book jacket as I opened it, feel the weight of the thick paper as I turned the pages, and suck in that lovely, musty “library book” smell as I read.
Since then, AMMIE, COME HOME has become comfort food to me. I return to it when I need to, just as I might to Campbell’s Tomato Soup, or a McDonald’s cheeseburger and orange drink, or—more likely these days—a nice cabernet sauvignon.
Like a glass of good red wine, AMMIE, COME HOME is comforting, but also complex. The art, the language: “…the terror began. It came slowly and slyly, like a trickle of dirty water through a crack.” Or, in describing Sara, simply “the familiar, unrecognizable face.”
I’m more aware of the nuances now; but, when I first read AMMIE, all I knew was that it took me to a place where good was rewarded and evil was punished–even after death. And despite the fact that most of the characters in the book weren’t related to each other, and I was kin to none, I felt bereft when I closed the book. Like I’d lost a family.
I could regain that family, though, by simply opening the book again.
That was important to me.
You see, AMMIE, COME HOME came out in 1968. My father was dying of lung cancer.
I was fourteen.
I was angry, because life seemed so unfair.
I was scared, because I knew my dad would die, as he did that December.
And I was ashamed, because my awful, secret fear was that my mother would die, too, and leave me alone.
In short, I was ripe for a fictional world to disappear into and, particularly, for a book like
AMMIE, COME HOME. I needed to believe there was life after death. That family could form where there was none. And, most of all, I needed to believe that there was justice.
Somewhere. Somehow.
And isn’t that why we read—and write—mysteries after all?
To face our demons and triumph? To live our worst nightmares and still wake up in the morning?
Barbara Michaels helped me do that. Bless her for that.
Oh, and bless my mother, too. She’s turning ninety this year.

Sandra Balzo
Author of the Maggy Thorsen and Main Street Mysteries from Severn House
Watch for Murder on the Orient Espresso, coming in December!

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