BARBARA MERTZ a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters or Barbara Michaels
MARCH 12, 2021—I was a teenager when I was introduced to Barbara Mertz through the novel The Master of Blacktower, written under her pseudonym, Barbara Michaels. The tortured and cruel Gavin Hamilton hires poor, penniless, orphan Damaris Gordon as his secretary. The reader, along with Damaris, is drawn into a world of dark secrets that include crippling injuries and disturbing accusations. When I look up Mertz’s pseudonym’s online, her novels are labeled as suspense/thriller/mystery, but when I grew up reading them, the library and bookstores placed them under the “gothic” genre. In reality, her novels included romance, history, suspense, and supernatural elements centralized on highly curious, smart, and strong-willed women. Whether gothic or suspense, I remember staying up far too late, on a school night, to finish reading Damaris’s enthralling story.
Mertz was born Barbara Gross in September 1927, in Canton, Illinois and later married Richard Mertz in 1950. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and finally, in 1952, with her PhD in Egyptology. Her initial publications were nonfiction books on ancient Egypt, and her first fiction novel, The Master of Blacktower, released in 1966.
It was through Barbara’s nom de plume, Elizabeth Peters, that I discovered my own fascination with archeology, artifacts, and art crimes. Her three intrepid amateur sleuth series’ featuring Amelia Peabody, Vicky Bliss, and Jacqueline Kirby draws readers into such fantastical locations as the pyramids of ancient Egypt, crumbling Roman temples, or medieval German castles. Every story is woven with a witty and daring protagonist who jumps into each adventure with both feet.
Amelia Peabody’s trips to Egypt inspired me to incorporate an Egyptian artifact into my own Karina Cardinal mystery, Pharaoh’s Forgery. Her novels challenged me to take Karina on a trip of her own, down to sunny Mexico where her relaxing vacation goes awry, much like that of Jacqueline Kirby in The Murders of Richard III. Mertz’s mysteries also stirred the juices of my first Karina Cardinal novel, Isabella’s Painting, where I incorporated one of the highest valued art thefts in history. I also learned, through her Vicky Bliss series, that mystery does not necessarily have to begin with a dead body. Thieves, stolen artifacts, forged talismans, and grainy photographs can lead an amateur sleuth down perilous paths with just as much fun and entertainment as a dead body.
Sadly, Mertz passed away in 2013 at the age of 85, having written over fifty fun-filled, and thrilling masterpieces of mystery, romance, and suspense. Though she lived not far from me, her passing came just as I was launching my own writing career, and I never got a chance to meet her—a great regret of mine. However, I have many tattered copies of her novels, and I will enjoy rereading them for years to come.