remembering barbara mertz


general fun

Happy 95th Dear Barbara!

Today we raise a glass of whatever beverage we find most genial to beloved author Barbara Mertz / Elizabeth Peters / Barbara Michaels …

Courtesy Chuck Roberts
Courtesy Mystery to Me and Joan Hess
Courtesy Roxie Walker

Barbara Mertz with her cohort at the OI, University of Chicago

Mysterious mystery writer — and cat, of course!

Barbara with dear friend Charlotte MacLeod

… and who could this be?

We remember with joy a full life well-lived.

Memories of Malice (Part V, Finale!)

V. “One of the most exciting developments in mystery writing over the past decade has been the broadening of its boundaries and the breakdown of formerly rigid categories.”

Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
No one tops Malice Hat Ladies!

After the surge of cozies in the early 1990s, the pendulum swung back the other way for a bit.

“There was this real fluorescence of women writers, and publishers – as usual – it kind of got out of control,” James said. “They published way too many and eventually by the late 1990s, there was a correction in the market.”

Still, from the 1990s to the present, Malice has continued to grow in popularity. “From the beginning, it certainly seemed to fill a need, and has thrived,” Stashower said.

And in the process, Malice has expanded its definition of what constitutes an Agatha Award-worthy book, to the point where Foxwell said it became almost indistinguishable from Bouchercon. Last year, the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel went to Ann Cleeves for “The Long Call.” The novel is dark detective fiction – a mystery for sure, but not exactly a cozy.

“In the early years, we were always careful with that definition, so we would have a unique identity,” Foxwell said.

In the 2010s, traditional and cozy mysteries enjoyed another resurgence. Reissues of Golden Age mysteries and publications of cozies took off again. Joseph Knobbs, the crime buyer for Waterstones, told the Guardian that the subgenre had become “massive” for them.  

Malice Celebrates Traditional Mysteries In Style

Meanwhile, the publishing industry has heeded Malice’s call to publish traditional mysteries in greater numbers. By 2018, publishers like Kensington, Crooked Lane Books and Sourcebooks were reviving cherished cozy mystery series and releasing new ones, as author Amanda Flower noted in Publishers Weekly. Berkley also has widened its selection of mysteries. Authors like Ellery Adams and Kate Kingsbury have risen to popularity amid the cozy mystery publishing renaissance.

And by 2020, Kirkus Reviews had even run a defense of cozy mysteries. It argued that “once you agree that crime fiction is literature, then slotting cozies into a lesser category feels arbitrary and quite likely based on gendered, dated, or unexamined notions.”

Agatha Characters?

“What I hear a lot, especially during this pandemic, [is] people have run like crazy to cozies, to Golden Age mysteries,” Foxwell said. “They’re comforting, they’re reassuring – they’re a formula, sure – I have really seen people stampeding like crazy to cozies.”

The notion that traditional mysteries are the red-headed stepchild of the publishing industry has now been broadly challenged. But the question remains: did Malice change the industry, or did the industry change Malice?

“I think in some ways Malice was a victim of its own success,” James said. As the convention became profitable, organizers could afford to bring in more high-profile authors and pay their way. And they eventually ran out of traditional mystery writers to honor, so they started to look outside of the subgenre.

“I mean, I love Sara Paretsky to death, I think she’s a tremendous writer – no one has more passion for what she does than Sara – but Sara’s not Malice Domestic, and she would tell you that,” James explained. “And they gave Sara a lifetime achievement award. And Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman and Dick Francis – those are not traditional mystery writers. They’re all terrific writers, but they didn’t belong at Malice. When that started happening, I thought ‘Malice has changed.’”

Morman said the convention grew more formal over time. Convention organizers also raised the cost of membership from $25, which is what it cost in the early years.

And for all the positive publicity that traditional mysteries have received in recent years, they still lag the darker fare in industry recognition.

“In terms of awards, still these days, you don’t see very many traditional mysteries being nominated for Edgars,” Foxwell said. “The Edgars still have shall we say a bias toward the darker, the thriller, the ‘serious’ book.”

Indeed, the fact that cozies still need to be defended suggests that Malice has yet to fully achieve its original aims.

“Barbara really did put her imprint on it, although I don’t think that she really has ever gotten full credit, because they still think these books are – you know, anything written by women for women can’t really be good and serious,” James said. “But kudos to Barbara, because our genre of books ‘don’t get no respect,’ as Henny Youngman used to say.”

And in the meantime, the mystery world, like the rest of publishing, has been transformed by the growth of the Internet and the rise of self-published writers.

“Things are different today,” Stashower said. “There is still of course the traditional publishing path, but there are other [avenues]. In the same way that the music industry has diversified, there are other ways to put books out there. Obviously, there’s self-publishing, there are small independent publishers, there is all kinds of stuff happening online. It’s a very different landscape now.”

Still, Malice has become one of the crucial stops for denizens of the mystery scene, whether their novels are traditional mysteries or more hardboiled fare.

Stashower said Malice today is “energizing, because there are so many people who are coming into the community” these days. And the convention is more popular than ever.

Indeed, last November, Mystery Writers of America announced that Malice Domestic had won its Raven Award for outstanding achievement in the mystery field beyond the realm of creative writing.

“Malice did establish a fairly high profile in the mystery world,” James said. “And I know newer writers coming along always wonder, ‘Should I go to Malice?’”

Should you go to Malice? The answer is obviously …. yes!!!

Thank you for following our series highlighting the beginning of Malice Domestic, along with fond memories of Barbara and others from that time. AND CHECK OUT THIS YEAR’S EXCITING ON-LINE EVENT: “More than Malice”!

Memories of Malice (Part IV)

IV. “It is now [1992] one of the big events of the mystery year, and the Agatha is one of the most coveted of mystery awards.”

Elizabeth Peters, “Malice Domestic I”
[Photo: Charlotte MacLeod, Barbara Mertz, Patricia Moyes, and Sarah Caudwell]

Malice’s heyday arguably corresponded with a boom in traditional and cozy mystery books in the 1990s.

“Into the early ’90s, there was a sudden flourishing of women writers,” Dean James said. “Publishers became aware that there were women out there who were looking for something besides the… loner private eye, the divorced police detective and all that kind of stuff.”

“Barbara really was at the leading edge,” he added. “She deserves real credit for that.”

As for Malice, it grew and grew. In 1992, Malice incorporated as a nonprofit. Since then, a volunteer board of directors has run the convention.

The event itself recovered from that disastrous first year and went on to become a popular and (mostly) smoothly run convention.

“After the first year, we knew we needed a new hotel, no question,” said Elizabeth Foxwell. “So we went to Bethesda… We were at the Bethesda Hyatt for a long time. And we were one of their top clients. The liquor sales were huge, to the point where one year the hotel actually ran out of liquor. So the Bethesda Hyatt really loved us.”

Malice organizers finally had to leave their beloved hotel in Bethesda after eight or nine years because the ballroom couldn’t fit all the people who wanted to come. So they moved into D.C. But the hijinks continued there.

Foxwell said Peters was a sort of godmother figure at Malice. “Through her presence, through bringing her friends in, through staging some wacky occurrences throughout the convention, she helped create the culture,” she recalled. “When Barbara was around, there were always some shenanigans.”

One example cited by several Malice attendees was the time Dan Stashower, Edgar Award-winning author of “Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle,” among other books, handcuffed himself to British mystery writer Penny Moyes.

“When I got there, I had no idea about what it would be like or what I would find,” Stashower said of attending the convention early on. “But right away I was meeting people like [Peters], Sarah Caudwell, Penny Moyes, Joan Hess, and people like that.”

Hess was reportedly behind many of the shenanigans along with Peters. Soon enough, Hess was recruiting Stashower to participate in some of her more outlandish stunts, including the handcuffing incident.

“[Hess] thought it would be funny if we were pretending that we were all squabbling with each other,” Stashower recalled. “And somehow it got from there to me handcuffing myself to Penny Moyes. At a remove of more than 20 years, I no longer remember how I got there. But I remain grateful that Penny Moyes, this figure of legend, took it in good humor when I came out into the audience and handcuffed myself to her wrist. And somehow, I dragged her onto the stage… and then started doing a bit where I’d raise my hand, and then her hand went up.”

Moyes handled it in stride, laughing and cracking jokes as they went along. And as Hess had promised, it turned out to be quite funny.

“I felt like I had found my tribe,” Stashower said.

Then there was the time when Hess, Sharyn McCrumb, Dorothy Cannell, and Margaret Maron decided to give out the W(h)imsey Award for comedy in mystery. (Lord Peter Wimsey is the hero of a series of mystery novels by Dorothy L. Sayers.) The award was a stuffed muskrat in a skirt and hat.

Joan Hess, Dorothy Cannell, Sarah Caudwell, and Sharyn McCrumb

“And they called out the nominees, and the nominees were themselves, and then they said, ‘And the winner is – Sarah Caudwell,’” James recounted. “And then Sarah stood up, and there was this gabbling, and she comes up to the stage, and she was so excited. She tried to take it home with her. And the customs people didn’t want to let her. She eventually had her way, and that thing is somewhere in England, I guess.”

The convention was a success, no question about it. And many of the attendees forged memories that they cherish to this day.

But even then, critical acclaim remained elusive. The same year that Peters dubbed the Agatha the “most coveted” mystery award, the New York Times declared, “One would like to think that our best authors are immune to the relaxation of technical skills that the cozy mystery has made possible.” The Gray Lady charged cozy mystery writers with an “aversion to plotting” and went on to praise hardboiled authors and mystery writers outside Malice’s purview.

“There are people out there who still denigrate the cozy and the traditional mystery, who feel like the only good mystery is a hardboiled mystery or something that is extremely dark,” Foxwell said.

Contrary to suggestions otherwise by the Times, Mary Morman noted, Malice has never been an advocacy organization. It began as an appreciation society but became a forum for industry workshops over the years.

Stay tuned for Part V, our finale!

Midwest PQ Launches – 2017

   2017-07-25 OakParkCake1       2017-07-25 OakParkCake2

Meanwhile …. back in the MIDWEST, where Barbara was born….

JOAN HESS carried out book launches in Forest Park (near where Barbara went to high school) and in Madison, Wisconsin, at two beloved independent book stores….


At Centuries and Sleuths, two large carrot cakes appeared (courtesy of relatives of Barbara’s who live in the Oak Park area), in honor of the occasion.  (Also mindful of the fact that Joan had declared carrot cake a full meal, as it contains all necessary food groups — protein, vegetable, fruit (raising) and carbs…) (no comment!)   Owner Augie Alesky remembered that Barbara LOVED kolackies from a local bakery, and had sneakily asked him to help her find some when she last visited Centuries and Sleuths.  So he and Tracy made sure they had some of those delicacies on hand also!

2017-07-25 OakPark2

In the window at Centuries and Sleuths, in honor of the occasion, was a display featuring Ancient Egypt (oh no, Budge!!) and details on The Painted Queen.  Joan put on her sparkle, and greatly enjoyed conversations with fans who had come from all over.  (She and Barbara both talked about how they would go to signings and “sparkle” for fans…)

NEXT STOP — Mystery to Me, a favorite haunt for mystery readers in Madison, Wisconsin.  Joanne Berg, Jayne Rowsam, and Doug Moe greeted Joan with (of course!) carrot cake.  Doug not only conducted a wonderful interview, but made sure that some vodka appeared as well.…  An enthusiastic audience joined in, and lined up for a book signing afterwards.  Another independent bookstore that came in high on Joan’s list, Mystery to Me is stocked not only with mysteries but with children’s books and other fare to feed the hungry reader!


When the Painted Queen hit the bestseller list, Doug again checked in with Joan and published a terrific column to celebrate.  He described the launch party in Madison:

I’ve been doing author interviews at events at Mystery to Me for two years now and have enjoyed almost all of them.

The night of July 26—Beth Mertz came, too—was special. Not only because of the unusual circumstances behind the publication of “The Painted Queen,” but because in person Joan Hess turned out to be as spirited, humorous and salty as she was in our phone chat.

Illness and a bad hip kept her in a wheelchair that night, but Hess was undaunted. Entering the store, she spied the carrot cake that Mystery to Me proprietor Joanne Berg and brought for the occasion. There was wine, too, but I sensed from Hess that something was missing.

I phoned home. “Bring vodka!”

Mrs. Moe is resourceful, and we live near the bookstore. She was there in minutes with the requested libation. She and Hess bonded.  The store was packed with readers of the Peabody novels, grateful to hear the backstory…

And indeed, it was a special evening.  Together with the previous evening at Centuries and Sleuths, it gave Painted Queen a midwest launch that did justice to two friends,  Mertz and Hess, in a final bow.

2017-07-25 OakPark4

2017-07-25 OakParkJoan-Madison


MONDAY NIGHT, July 31! New York City! Barbara Rosenblat Reading from Painted Queen! 7 pm, bookculture on Columbus!


NOT TO BE MISSED — Tomorrow Night, Monday July 31st, at 7 pm, at bookculture

450 Columbus Ave.
New YorkNY 10024


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!!)



Painted Queen, the weekend (Nefertiti Boot Camp)



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.”

But who could resist my charms?

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.


Discovery, Books, and Egypt


Hi all, we are getting some updates on the “Discovery Sale” being held online only, alongside the Gallery Auction at Cooper’s this week.  Items from both events are being displayed simultaneously, although the “Discovery” items are being sold separately (with lower-ticket stuff, it seems).

This is most definitely more Barbara’s than our kind of setting and interest, so we will just highlight the BOOKS!  (Always a shared interest!) and Egyptian things that wound up in “Discovery” — but there are also some other assorted items (all marked as being Barbara’s).


BOOKS!  … on EgyptSherlock Holmes & other detectives; novels from Edgar Rice Burroughs to a set of Mark Twain (a favorite author of both Barbara’s and her father’s); books on architecture & art, old-fashioned readings (Baroness Orczy, Rafael Sabatini, John Buchan, George MacDonald); books Barbara enjoyed since when she was younger (LM Montgomery, Alcott, Wren); more of the latter with some extra favorites thrown in (like Aiken and Farjeon); a mix of some of the above that adds in Noel Streatfield and E.Nesbit, among others; some L.Frank Baum;  mysteries ….  and, for the “Another Shirt Ruined” crew — H.Rider Haggard, along with “Sons of the Sheik” (really?) and some of her well-worn T.H. White & Elizabeth Goudge.   Within those covers, many feasts.


Besides books on Egypt, there are Egypt-themed figures and framed prints and toys (fun to look at, for those who share Barbara’s sense of the frivolous).

Oh, and of course, there has to be …. a cat.

Ps … a cheat sheet on the auction …

In response to those who’ve wanted help in checking out the upcoming Baltimore-area event, here are some short-cuts:


[hint: look *under* the hats….]


**Guy with classical good looks

**No evil eyes on these cats!

**Another guy with classical good looks (do we detect a theme?)

**Not Emerson’s travel kit (for obvious reasons)

**Some odd Egyptian-themed things

**Fiat lux!

**Fiat more lux?

**More Egyptian-themed things (do we detect another trend?)



**Not Emerson’s chest (for obvious reasons)

**OK, antique  furniture for those of you who find it   interesting (sorry, still scarred from too many antique show expeditions as a child to get into this….)

**Although, this one is kind of fun

**And these all match

**Ooh, these match AND you can eat food on them!

**And this could be useful for seeing yourself 

**Again, not Emerson’s manly chest as Amelia likes to describe it…

**Sethos’s chest?  nope

**Running  out of things to say  about all this

**Of possible interest to pie lovers

**Never heard of a lap desk before … kind of a cool idea, though

**Egyptian revival furniture? at least it has Egypt in the title….

**Ramses’s chest?  ok we’re done with chest jokes!

**The horse is definitely cool

**American Gothic … chandelier?? (Ammie Come Home, anyone?)

**While we’re on the ghost stories, there’s this…

**Our woman with the cat


For fans in the Baltimore area….

… and people who, like Barbara, are into antiques….  (unlike some (not all!) of Barbara’s progeny, for whom being dragged to antique shows ranked lower than going to the dentist).

Mertz Interiors 034.jpg

There are going to be several events coming up in the Baltimore-Frederick area in the next couple of months that will feature some items from Barbara’s estate.  One part of this effort will involve bundling part of Barbara’s (incredibly massive) book collection into themed parcels .. including, for those of you following recent exchanges about this on Facebook’s “Another Shirt Ruined” group — her H. Rider Haggard collection! (Be forewarned, Barbara used her books with gusto — they were there to be read, not looked at!  She boasted that as a child, her father teased her that he never knew what food items might show up in a book she was reading….) (Chocolate ones preferred, of course.)   Some of this will be cataloged online, while some will just be up for viewing at the event sites.

We mention this in case you’d like to see things from the grand to the little and silly from Barbara’s life.  (To be clear, this is about sharing the fun, not urging anyone to buy anything…. there will be plenty of collector-types, just like Barbara, to do that!)   You can eyeball some things online — but the actual display in the galleries may be fun to browse in person if you’re in the area (and it’s free to go see it!).

SO, the first event is at Alex Cooper’s galleries in Towson, Maryland, on April 7 and 9.  The official catalog features the big items — but there should also be some smaller, Egypt-themed silly stuff on display.  (Barbara prided herself on never losing a child-like sense of humor and fun, so she delighted in kids’ toys and collected Lord-of-the-Rings stuff of all kinds….)  Not sure yet about the books, but will update as we can.  And oh, all right, yes, there’s some furniture (yawn)(sorry, still can’t get excited about it!).

The Cooper’s brochure gives a few more details, and there are online pictures of some stuff, including that great carousel horse (the only ride she really enjoyed at amusement parks — but she would ride that one numerous times, chortling as she went!) — and of course there has to be a woman with a cat!


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