Many of you have probably already read of Joan Hess‘s passing on Thanksgiving Day, 2017. She had been undergoing serious health challenges throughout the three years during which she was completing The Painted Queen. But, she persevered valiantly throughout, and was very excited to see the book published this past July. Joan personally attended signings in the Chicago area and in Wisconsin, revisiting two independent book stores that had long been favorites of hers and Barbara’s. In the Chicago area, Hess signed books at Centuries and Sleuths — where owner Augie Alesky greeted her with a marvelous window display and treats for all comers. In Madison, Wisconsin, Joan delighted in her interview at Mystery to Me with writer Doug Moe — and the carrot cake thoughtfully supplied by owner Joanne Berg. Doug recently wrote a post that recalled Joan’s visit, and her wistful hope that she could hit the bestseller list after a long career as an accomplished mystery writer. Author of the hilarious Maggody series featuring Arly Hanks, she also toasted her hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas in a series centering on bookstore owner/sleuth Claire Malloy.
PQ hit the New York Times bestseller list at #7 in its first week, and also reached #5 on the Washington Post list. This was a fitting tribute to Joan’s labors, to Barbara’s final efforts at giving voice to Amelia, and to their friendship. They were part of a close group of writer friends who had long supported each other, attending Malice Domestic together — and then separately holding their own “Grouchercons” to vent their own brand of sardonic humor.
We risk inciting them to haunt us if we end with maudlin sentimentality (although it must be said that they were both deeply sentimental despite many avowals to the contrary!). So, have a slice of carrot cake, lift a glass of vodka (if you can stand the combination!), and drink to the memory of one hell of a woman.
Painted Queen debuted at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list, and #5 on the Washington Post bestseller list. What a testament to the pent-up demand of many fans who had been waiting for this final chapter of the Amelia series! Chronologically, the final book was Tomb of the Golden Bird, published in 2006. Barbara said she wanted her beloved characters to go off into the sunset happily, and that she wanted to write the actual ending of the series while she was still at full strength in terms of her writing. She had commented admiringly on Agatha Christie’s similar decision to write the endings for her sleuths Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot long before the end of her writing career. But where Christie held the final books for publication until the very last, Barbara published her final Amelia and then went back to fill in “missing years” in the Peabody/Emerson chronicles. Queen is the last of these fill-in novels.
So, happy birthday — here’s to Barbara! — and to Joan and Salima and “Rosenblat” (affectionately) and to the whole community that continues to love and breathe life into the worlds that Peters and Michaels left us.
[**Readers of Silhouette in Scarlet will appreciate the picture above of a hand-cut silhouette made of Barbara many years ago. The other silhouette is from stationery Barbara had made for her “official” MPM Manor correspondence … the similarity to Amelia is unmistakable!]
Four years ago, we lost a friend and author whose voice echoed in that of Amelia but also of Emerson and Nefret and Ramses — of Vicky and John and Jacqueline and Abdullah. We hear her in the erudite narrator of Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs as well as in the silliest of the farcical moments in Naked Once More or The Camelot Caper.
Sensible, wistful, glorying in the ridiculousness of life, horrified by human cruelty, impatient with snobbery — there were many voices in her writings. But no one who knew Barbara Mertz could doubt one key message she wanted to impart: we should celebrate the many gifts we have. Celebrate that we are here. Celebrate each other. Celebrate the amazing variety of cultures and art and music and gardens and … well, it all gets too much to put in a paragraph, let alone a sentence! Chocolate! Gin! Cats! Celebrate that there are dahabeeyahs! Barbara with her arms wide open in welcome and enthusiasm — we celebrate this memory.
We are also celebrating the publication of Barbara’s final Amelia book, The Painted Queen, completed by her dear friend Joan Hess, with help from another close friend, Salima Ikram. It is awesome that the book has made multiple bestseller lists now — but it is even more awesome that it was friendship that carried it there. (At this point, Barbara would say not to get too sentimental and schmaltzy. Of course she did that all the time, while denying it vigorously.)
Toward the end of her life, Barbara said that heaven would have to be pretty great to be better than this life. But this life was great to her because she reveled in all it had to give. So today we celebrate, as she would want us to. The New York Times bestseller list is great! (It’s fantastic! It’s worth an extra glass of gin or several extra brownies!) But so is a beautiful garden, or a book that takes us somewhere new, or even more important, the evil chuckles of friends who have just pulled the greatest prank of all with you…. (no, Joan and Salima and the rest of you — please don’t get any ideas!!) (But …. thanks.)
We implore any fans who go to take pictures and send them to the jealous members of MPM who cannot be there!!! And we thank the many fans who came to the kick-off events in Forest Park, IL — Frederick, MD — and Madison WI ! We’ll be posting more about those soon. THIS IS PUB WEEK for our beloved Painted Queen … we are told the first week sales are key, and since we are pushing for some future plans on Amelia, we’re rallying Elizabeth Peters fans … THIS IS NOT THE END, IT’S THE BEGINNING of new horizons! (ALSO, we just love Barbara Rosenblat, the voice of EP books for decades and a major voice artist!!)
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.
I have been eagerly awaiting the final installment of the Amelia Peabody series ever since I heard that the late author Elizabeth Peters had one final book in the works. Thanks to the gracious folks who responded to my request at William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers, I was able to get my hands on this advance reader’s edition, and you may be sure that I devoured it!
For those who may be coming to this book with no prior knowledge of the series, even though this book is #20, it fits chronologically about two-thirds of the way into the series and fills in a gap between previously published books. The Painted Queen will certainly be most meaningful to you if you have read the books that precede it, but I think it would stand up even if you came to it without that context.
That being said, here are my thoughts:
This is a stellar addition to the Amelia series. On page one, I admitted to myself some reservations. Joan Hess is the co-author for this work; I wondered, how would the collaboration flow? Would I really recognize my favorite characters? Would I be able to suspend disbelief and go along on their adventures with the same thrill I’ve gotten in many of Elizabeth Peters’ other works?
I realized by about page seven that the answer to all of those questions was YES! In fact, this book may actually mark the series’ peak of comedy, derring-do, and suspense. It’s very, very funny, and the action is tightly plotted without any slow bits.
I love the premise, which is absurd and therefore sits fair and square in Amelia’s world. Without any apology whatsoever, she OWNS the fact that her life is straight out of the most sensational of novels. She and her family of archaeologists are just beginning their latest venture in Egypt when a villain with a monocle bursts into her bath chamber, gasps “Murder!” and collapses in a dead heap on the floor moments before he would have strangled her. Naturally, she hoists herself out of the tub and begins going through his pockets. When she and her husband Emerson begin speculating about the presence of the monocle, she immediately informs him that it must be the insignia of a secret society, and that assassins sometimes travel in gangs.
“Assassins do not travel in gangs,” says Emerson.
(They are the perfect duo!)
This is the point at which I began to dissolve into fits of chuckling.
And that is just the beginning of an adventure that involves a whole parade of monocled men named after the great traitors of history. Also, you know the iconic treasure sitting in a museum in Berlin, the Nefertiti bust? The Emerson family is seamlessly inserted into that historical narrative. (I love the way Elizabeth Peters has always had them at or near the scene of great discoveries, but always in such a way that real history is left intact…they get their hands all over the story, but in the end they leave no trace!)
So, yes, the Nefertiti bust has been discovered, but then it vanishes, but then it reappears again…and again…and again…how many of them can there be? Amelia’s son Ramses and his best friend David traverse Cairo hunting down each new copy.
This keeps Ramses mostly away from Nefret, the Emerson family’s ward, now a grown woman with a tragedy in her past. Readers of The Falcon at the Portal and He Shall Thunder in the Sky know that since this new book is filling in that chronological gap, the relationship tension must be kept intact. It simmers ever so slightly below the surface.
I must mention one other big thing that I adored in this book….the appearances of the Emerson family’s perpetual nemesis (actually, at this point, “frenemy” is probably a more accurate description). Yes, it’s Sethos, or as Amelia likes to call him, the Master Criminal. His disguises and plots are ongoing joys of the series. When he shows up in The Painted Queen, it’s with greater panache than ever before. There are thundering hooves. There are dramatic interventions. It’s glorious. Those who know the rest of his story will revel in these moments.
So, in review, this book is everything I wanted the last Amelia Peabody novel to be. I’m sad that there won’t be any more of her adventures, but I’m happy that The Painted Queen is such a fitting swan song. I am totally elated to have read it, and you will be too. It goes on sale July 25!
***SO MANY THANKS to William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers who provided me with this free advance copy in exchange for an honest review
Thanks to Brent Butler for sending us his much appreciated (56/56!) review of Painted Queen!!! Amelia’s Dear Readers rock on!
PS — A number of comments were just approved on the MPM official webpage after a blockade (caused by spamming)… they express much enthusiasm about Barbara Rosenblat’s role as official reader for our final Amelia volume….
Here’s Brent’s review:
56 of 56 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: The Painted Queen: An Amelia Peabody Novel of Suspense (Amelia Peabody Series) (Hardcover)
All Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Mertz) fans know that this was the Peabody mystery she had started, but not completed, when she passed away almost four years ago. A longtime friend and associate (Joan Hess) courageously took on the job of completing this work to give Amelia Peabody (et al) fans one last shot at the characters they’ve come to feel close to over the course of the last few decades.
Why do I call this courageous? Because Peters’ style had a rather unique quality, with braggadocio mixed with a deprecating humor in a way that just worked, and was quite unlike anything I’d personally read before. I didn’t think the style would be impossible for another writer to spread in to, but I considered that it could be very challenging.
A second aspect is that, for me at least, the underlying plots of the murder mysteries became secondary to the sense of family and the development of characters like Ramses and Nefret. The adventure of solving the crimes was at times part of the character development, and at times something I wanted to have done so that I’d find out what would happen in their personal stories. So yes, I got hooked into the soap opera element of the continuing series — hungry for the next news of Ramses and Nefret’s romance — anxious for the next contact with Sethos and what it would mean — wondering if Emerson’s brother and sister-in-law would ever come back in for a major contribution.
Why do I mention all this before I discuss “The Painted Queen”? Because the manner in which the character development and humor are presented are, to me, the hinge upon which the success of this novel rests as an integral entry in the Amelia Peabody series.
The result, I’ll report, is a bit mixed, but it weighs in much more on the positive side of the ledger. I find the characterizations to be true, and the elements of the plot live up to the series as written by Peters. Amelia’s “journals” provide the essence of her entertaining personality, if not always presented with the subtlety of Peters’ style.
“The Painted Queen” covers a “lost year” in the series, and one that came in the middle of a most important sequence of character development. It is set after “The Falcon at the Portal”, where Nefret marries someone other than Ramses in a mistaken rage at Ramses — and “He Shall Thunder in the Sky”, where Ramses and Nefret have a very rocky road to reconciliation. After having Ramses and Nefret present as a happy couple and competent motive force, I’m not sure how you mentally go back to a time before that, but then again Peters intended to fill in many of the missing years, and those include periods of time “pre-Ramses/Nefret”. This was the third book in that goal, after “Guardian of the Horizon” and “A River in the Sky”. Thus far I’ve read the series in publication order, so I have yet to “go back in time” to those books, meaning that “The Painted Queen” is my first experience of these missing years. However, it comes not long after I read the two novels which bookend it, which put me in a good position to evaluate it against the timeline.
Hess seems to get right into action more quickly and with a more rapid pace than I’ve been used to from Peters. Some might think that an improvement. I have come to enjoy the circumlocution which Peters frequently employed with both Amelia and Ramses, so I found delays before and during action to be a charming element of the color of these novels, and therefore the slight difference in Hess’ style was more noticeable for that reason. However, I don’t really consider this a criticism, just a difference, as had to happen in some ways when one author completes the work of another — especially in a series this long with such a well established style.
So while “The Painted Queen” doesn’t serve as a wrap-up to the series, as one might expect of a “last book”, it does give us a last experience with the characters we’ve come to enjoy and feel close to. It is certainly a solid offering. While some passages seem to lack the light touch of Peters, the overall tone is quite familiar and acceptable.
If you’re a fan of the Amelia Peabody series, you certainly won’t want to miss this last tribute to the characters and their marvelous author.
We are pleased to post the first “dear reader” review on Painted Queen, sent to us via Twitter DM … thanks Benjamin!
“Returning unexpectedly and wonderfully, a new Amelia Peabody mystery is finally ours to enjoy. We are thrust back into history, into the winding alleys of the Khan el-Khalili, to the terrace at Shepheard’s, and down the Nile to Amarna. In this fond locale, where she and Emerson first fell in love, they fight old foes, fight several new foes, lecture about proper excavation techniques, hold councils of war, make us laugh, and leave us desperate for more stories that may never come. “The Painted Queen” allows Amelia’s beloved Reader to say goodbye, but never adieu, for as long as we have Egypt in our hearts and a whiskey and soda in hand, Amelia will live forever.” –Benjamin Phillips
AS JULY APPROACHES, anticipation of the The Painted Queen’s publication date is growing. HarperCollins has hosted 2 giveaways of pre-publication versions (**NOTE, THIS IS *NOT* THE FINAL VERSION!) ….
There are only 2 days left to sign up for the second giveaway: www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/231794-the-painted-queen
BUT now the latest development is a giveaway raffle hosted by the fandom itself, led by @TeamRamses (on Twitter and Tumblr).
Don’t worry if you aren’t a regular user of Tumblr — there’s a link you can click that will allow you to sign up in multiple ways.
It’s so exciting to see that lovers of Amelia — and Elizabeth Peters — are still actively in conversation, reading, sharing, continuing to hold onto the beloved characters and stories. And much more to come!