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.)
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
We are delighted to announce that HarperCollins has accepted a finished manuscript of The Painted Queen, started by Elizabeth Peters and completed by her dear friend and fellow mystery writer Joan Hess. The publication date is expected to be July of 2017.
Marking the third anniversary of our favorite author’s passing, MPM Manor unveiled the new official Barbara Mertz webpage on August 8, 2016. Thank you to all the wonderful readers and fans who are helping her memory and her writings live on!
Again in response to a very helpful suggestion from a “dear reader” of MPM’s, we are venturing into an exploration of the clues she left about her writing process. Over the years, she kept various notebooks and loose notes tracking her projects, all of which we’re just beginning to unpack (literally and figuratively). Eventually, this will all be archived (about which, more as we have information).
So we can start here with just a modest set of handwritten notes from a small three-ring notebook Barbara was carrying with her between 1962 and 1964 (with a few random notes from later years). In this notebook she documented aspects of her family’s move to live in Rome for 2 years, as well as a trip she took to Egypt. The loose-leaf pages contain her observations on many topics pertinent to her writings — intermingled with to-do lists, etc., and occasional brilliant artwork by her young kids. (We are completely objective on this last point.)
Within this funny mix of mundane and writerly notes, it’s apparent that Barbara was always busy scouting various terrains for possible book topics and ideas. As devoted readers of Peters and Michaels know, settings for the books ranged across time as well as all over the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. It probably would not surprise those readers that we found notes on English history peppered throughout a notebook where she tracked the costs of an outing to Pompeii and kept shopping lists. Some of the notes detailed her ongoing and systematic search through a journal (Archaeologia– and remember, this was long before one could search online…). For example, there’s a series of notes on heraldry:
“Archaeologia 1949: The Ghost or Shadow as a Charge in Heraldry. Charge is blazoned “ombre” or “umbra” in Fr. + Latin. Tr. “ghost or phantom;” but by Engl. armorists it was misread shadow”…. (& these MPM notes go on for several pages-the underlining in these excerpts is hers)
More notes from the same journal track articles on “King John’s Baggage Train,” the “Body of Henry IV at Canterbury, lead perfectly preserved,” and one from 1883 on “Decorations of H. VII’s chapel” that clearly delighted her imagination:
“St. Wilgeforte (sic), In H. VII’s chapel, a young woman with long hair + turban and beard. … Was a famous image of her at St. Paul’s, + she was once a favorite. A saint who had obtained a beard to escape matrimony, thus should have some sympathy for ladies who wished to escape from it. Ladies who had husbands they wished to get rid of used to ask for her help, hence her popular name of St. Uncumber.
(Ladies who wanted husbands paid their devotions to Rood of Northdoor at St. Paul’s — Paston Letters, 11, 23.)
Uncumber is mentioned by T. More. She is offered oats — possibly because she provides a horse for an evil “housebonde” to ryde to the Devyll upon. In Ger. she was called Kummerniss, St. Liberata in Portugal + France.”
A small triumphant notation states: “Checked Archaeologia 1890 – 1909“. This was years before her book on The Murders of Richard III, but it seems as if Barbara was busily soaking up ideas from all over the historical sources she could access, as they engaged her interest and imagination. She would later explain that: “The research skills I learned can be applied to any field; I have used them to collect background material for novels that deal with the Peasants’ Revolt, Etruscan archaeology, vintage clothing, the Risorgimento, the chartist movement, and innumerable other subjects. Accuracy is very important to me as a novelist; not only does my own professional pride demand it, but I have many readers whose expertise in various fields is at least as great as my own. They can and do chastise me when I make mistakes.” (Yikes! Daunting!)
Whether to avoid mistakes or just to pick up ideas, she was clearly scouting many possible terrains for her novels from very early on. Canadian comics artist Kate Beaton seems to engage in a very similar process, investigating all sorts of historical sources to come up with ideas for her hilarious send-offs of people and events from long ago. For Barbara, going to original sources and places as much as she could, steeping herself in the little details of different lives: all this became a rich and fertile background from which more full-blown characters and plot lines would eventually emerge — sometimes surfacing as a (seemingly) throw-away line that made dialogue feel richer, other times forming a major backbone for particular plot arcs. In the meantime, it’s apparent she was also having a lot of fun!
In response to a great suggestion from one of Barbara’s “dear readers,” we’ve been inspired to post a little something about the room where she did her writing, in her beloved “MPM Manor” out in the Maryland countryside. She bought the old farmhouse from an interior designer, so it had already been decked out and updated in style. The study area already had a beautifully draped fabric hung from the ceiling; when it came time to replace that, MPM decided to have fun and “go golden.” Her house contained large collections of all kinds of books — mysteries, science fiction, historical novels, children’s books, classic literature (Jane Austen!), melodramatic old accounts of desert romances, you name it. In the study she kept a collection of her own books — one copy of each edition, including those in many different languages and the audio book versions. She also surrounded herself with books and journals pertaining to her central interests — Ancient Egypt, and the histories surrounding the exploration and development of archaeology there ….
Also bedecking her walls and shelves were many humorous notes and pictures from her writer friends, many of whom shared her often quirky sense of humor. Take, for example, the “Literary Cupcake” prize that she received from a mysterious group — for some serious accomplishments (tooth-chipping, anyone?):
It was less than a month before she died when Barbara put down her pen, announcing that she would not be writing any more. This caught many of us by surprise, much as we’d known the day would have to come. But despite many attempts to “retire” in previous years, she’d always found herself bored, restless, at sea when she stopped writing – and eventually relented to write (usually) “one more” Amelia. As it had been since she was a very young woman, writing remained her solace, the goal toward which so many of her days were bent. Through even the worst of days, it was the imaginative lens through which she loved to think about the world — and the magic that she sought to share with her readers. What a gift.
We’ve been hinting that there might be a surprise or two from MPM Manor. In this post, we reveal a long-held secret, known only to writers and friends who were close to her:
It was Barbara who finished — indeed, wrote much of — her friend Charlotte MacLeod’s last book The Balloon Man.
As Charlotte planned and started to write The Balloon Man, she became increasingly ill and ultimately could not do much more than write an initial section with some sketches of where she wanted the book to go. This was the final book in Charlotte’s beloved Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn series. As a final gift to her dear friend and fellow writer, Barbara sat down with what Charlotte had written, and finished the book. She insisted on doing this anonymously, leaving the profits to go to help Charlotte during her final illness.
In preparation for this painful task, Barbara re-read the Kelling/Bittersohn series, and then attempted to write the book in a voice that was as faithful to Charlotte’s as possible. (It’s possible, now that readers know, that they may detect some Barbara’isms peeking through here and there.) Charlotte wrote in a humorous, erudite, “cozy” style that had always been very appealing to Barbara, and that exemplified the kind of writing in which her “Malice Domestic” crew specialized.
Here’s to writers, and to women, who support each other in meaningful ways — and here’s to paying it forward through many generations to come.
Today would have been Barbara’s 88th birthday …. not quite the triple-digit 111th birthday that Bilbo reached, but a double-digit worth commemorating nonetheless. In honor of the occasion, we’re posting some pictures from Barbara’s 80th birthday, which she celebrated at her beloved Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. As you can see, she was enjoying herself immensely!
Her friends brought out copies of her MA and PhD theses …. and no one will be surprised to learn that her dissertation dealt with some of the notable women in ancient Egypt. AND there was chocolate cake. (We won’t apologize for repeating the picture of the cake, as we share Barbara’s philosophy that one can never have too much of a good thing like chocolate….)
Happy birthday to someone we’re missing — but who would tell us to keep going in style!