Invisible ink no 266: Barbara Mertz


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The Independent Culture

Many authors cast their nets wide early in their careers, looking for themes to interest and sustain them. First steps often include essays, poetry, and ghost stories, but Barbara Mertz found a love of ancient Egypt that eventually appeared in her fiction.

She was born Barbara Gross, in Illinois in 1927, and attended Ernest Hemingway’s high school, where she became fascinated by Egyptology after a museum trip. Awarded a PhD in the subject, she found academic work hard to come by and so hid her credentials to obtain a secretarial position.

Under the pseudonym of Barbara Michaels she wrote 16 Gothic romances and supernatural thrillers over the next decade, as well as two nonfiction volumes on ancient Egypt, Red Land, Black Land and Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. But it was when she changed her name to Elizabeth Peters that she was able to fully explore her passion.

The first novel in her new series, Crocodile on the Sandbank, introduced the fierce, headstrong Victorian archaeologist Amelia Peabody, armed with toolbelt and parasol, fighting off grave robbers and murderers among the mummy cases and rare artifacts. She marries a fellow archaeologist, Radcliffe, they have a son, Ramses, and their adventures move forward in time as Cairo becomes a hotbed of enemy agents, with war looming and Turkish and German forces massing for an attack on the Suez Canal.

The Victorian Anglicisms occasionally slipped, but Mertz found her feet as the series continued. Her critics hit her with two veiled insults; “prolific”, which suggested lower quality, and “cosy”, a somewhat pejorative American term more accurately ascribed to Agatha Christie (another fan of Egyptology), who rarely mentioned the outside world or reflected the times in her books. It also feels misogynist because it mainly applies to “domestic” female sleuths who interfere in police matters from the safety of their lattice-windowed country cottages.

Peabody waded into dens of sinister thieves and was more like a female Indiana Jones, although Paul Theroux suggested that in wit and daring, Peabody thrashed Jones any day.

Mertz excelled at creepy villains such as the porcine art dealer in The Hippopotamus Pool. These were rollicking Holmesian adventures with lurid archetypes.

Mertz won many fiction prizes, but turned down offers to film the books after adaptations were butchered by TV writers. She used her royalties to finance a beautiful 10-acre garden, and died in 2013. Her early works have now reappeared as e-books.