VERSION I: THE OMNISCIENT NARRATORS’ STORY (really)
Joan Hess was asked if she would finish The Painted Queen shortly after Barbara Mertz’s death. At first she was uncertain about whether she would take on that very daunting task (exact quote, “Hell no.”) Within several months, she was invited back to Barbara’s celebrated home (The Manor) along with highly respected Egyptologist (and another dear friend of Barbara’s) Salima Ikram. Piles and piles of notes and drafts for PQ were still at the house. The weekend trip was designed to allay Joan’s fears that taking on a book with so much Egyptology in it would be just too much. The plan was that Salima, with background encouragement from Barbara’s daughter Beth, would demonstrate her palpable support for Joan, and give everyone a basic introduction to the relevant Egyptology and its many pitfalls.
The three women found many folders of notes and research done by Barbara in preparation for writing PQ, along with multiple versions of the initial chapters. Over the course of the weekend, the small team examined each folder carefully, discussing how things would fit together. While there was a lot of material, this didn’t necessarily make things easier — everything was jumbled in a way that made sense to Barbara but not necessarily to anyone else. The three also shared discussions that they had been having with Barbara while she was plotting and writing the book. When Joan initially gazed on Barbara’s bust of Nefertiti, covered with a black Victorian lace headscarf, she turned pale and said, “Take that away.”
Local Frederick friends of Barbara’s dropped in bearing food and especially drink to support the endeavor. Everyone plied Joan with inducements, including one of her big favorites — carrot cake. (Carrot cake, she pointed out, counts as a full meal because it includes all 4 main food groups — fruit (raisins), vegetables (carrots), protein/dairy (egg/milk/nuts) and carbs.) Cocktails were made. And consumed.
By the end of the weekend, Joan was able to face Nefertiti (both with and without the scarf), fortified by much carrot cake (and, did we mention especially ‘drink’?). She was heartened when they found the final paragraphs of the book, handwritten by Barbara, in which the villain was identified and Amelia had the last word, as usual. (These are are reproduced verbatim in the published book.)
Dressed in borrowed Egyptian robes from Barbara’s amazing vintage and Egyptian clothing collection, Joan joined with Salima and Beth in a celebratory (okay, throwing in the towel) ritual to seal the deal and send Nefertiti (or at least part of her) wandering all over Egypt.
During the tough three years ahead, Joan soldiered through many difficulties to finish the volume, supported by Salima on Egyptology and historical Egypt, and Beth on various sundry research questions. She also had the help of other experts, friends of Barbara’s who had long given Barbara feedback on the Amelia books — Dr. Ray Johnson and Dennis Forbes (editor of Kmt). We will not speculate on whether all this help was fortified by the occasional sip of some sort of genial beverage. But certainly she completed the task with style.
Today we celebrate Joan Hess, friend and mystery writer extraordinaire, and also Barbara Mertz — aka Elizabeth Peters — as we join Amelia and company on one last adventure.
Version II: Joan Hess’s Story
If I recall, the sky was a curious shade of yellow as I departed the train station next to BWI. I knew I was doomed as I climbed into the car with Beth and Salima — they were masters of manipulation and I was an easy target. Indeed, upon arrival at Mertz Manor, I was plied with vodka & tonic (with a splash of lime juice). “Finishing the book will be a piece of cake,” Beth cooed as she slid a piece of carrot cake across the kitchen table. My protests were dismissed. Beth had gathered all of Barbara’s manuscript pages, most of which had scrawled notes in the margins. The notes were very challenging to decipher and not always illuminating. We read aloud what we could and searched for ways to rearrange the scenes for clarity. Although I’m certain that Barbara had devised the entire plot, she did not share the convolutions — with the exception of the final scene. Salima was able to answer my dumb questions about Egypt and Beth supplied insights into Amelia and Emerson.
By the end of the weekend, we had come up with some ideas where the story might go. I felt I was out on a limb that had been patched with duct tape by my dear friends. Or masking tape. Thank goodness for vodka and carrot cake.