Monday, May 22, 2017

MPM: An appreciation

My sister recently emailed me a link, with the only commentary being "!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  :) "

She'd just learned that one more book from one of our favourite authors will be available in bookstores in July.  :)

Both of us discovered the mystery/thriller novels of Barbara Michaels when we were teenagers in the 1970s (still in junior high school, I think) -- most of them gothic mysteries/thrillers, with a tinge of the occult or supernatural. I don't remember the very first one I read, but my favourite was released around the time of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, and clearly written with that event in mind -- "Patriot's Dream," which takes place in Williamsburg, Virginia, and features time travel back to the days of the American Revolution.

Around the same time, we also discovered the novels of another mystery writer, Elizabeth Peters. Eventually, we came to realize that Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels were one and the same person.  The author's real name was Barbara Mertz, a PhD graduate from the Oriental Institute in Chicago, who published two non-fiction books on ancient Egypt in the 1960s. Fans often refer to her as "MPM," and her official website is

The novels she published as Elizabeth Peters differ from the Michaels novels with their focus on art, archaeology & history, as well as their irreverent sense of humour (which often had me chuckling out loud).  Some Peters novels were standalones -- such as my favourite, "Legend in Green Velvet," a caper set in the Scottish highlands.  But she also developed several series that all featured memorable heroines. There was Jacqueline Kirby, librarian turned romance novelist (one Kirby novel has the memorable title "Naked Once More," lol).  There was Vicky Bliss, an American art history professor, working at a museum in Berlin.

And there was Amelia Peabody, Victorian Egyptologist, perhaps the best-known Mertz/Peters/Michaels creation of all. I've always thought the Amelia books would make a delightful movie or television series, if properly scripted and cast :) and the Amelia section of the MPM site includes readers' votes for casting a hypothetical Peabody movie. (Although more than one MPM fan has noted the similarities between the Amelia books and "The Mummy" movies with Brendan Fraser...!) 

I don't remember discovering Amelia until after I was married (late 1980s/early 1990s) -- but once I read the first novel in the series, "Crocodile on the Sandbank," I was hooked, and devoured the subsequent entries, one after another.  I must admit I've fallen behind -- I have not yet read the last few books in the series, although I have an unofficial goal to finish them before the new one comes out...!

Sadly, Barbara Mertz/Barbara Michaels/Elizbeth Peters passed away in August 2013 at her home in Frederick, Maryland. But happily for her fans, she left behind an unfinished Amelia Peabody novel, "The Painted Queen." We started hearing rumours about it shortly after she died, but it wasn't until last fall that publication was confirmed.  MPM's friend and fellow mystery writer, Joan Hess (another author we've both read, whose heroines include Arly Hanks & Claire Malloy), took on the daunting task of finishing it, and the result will be released in July.

*** *** ***

One more reason why I think of Michaels/Peters (and the Amelia books in particular) so fondly.

When we lost learned that Katie's heart had stopped beating inside me on August 5, 1998, my mother flew immediately to be with me in the hospital. My father followed several days later, bearing a gift from my sister -- a hardcover copy of the newest Elizabeth Peters novel -- an "Amelia," called "The Ape Who Guards the Balance," There was a handwritten note inside which read (in part), "I thought Amelia chaining herself to #10 Downing Street would be more entertaining than flowers."  (She was right. :) )

Fast-forward a few months later to later October/early November, with my Nov. 14th due date rapidly approaching. While browsing the books section in the Saturday Globe and Mail, I saw an ad that made my jaw drop: an all-day event on "Crime and Punishment in Ancient Egypt" on Saturday, Nov. 7th -- the 24th annual symposium on Egyptology put on by the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities (SSEA) at the Royal Ontario Museum -- featuring a keynote address by famous author Elizabeth Peters. The public was welcome to attend.

Faster than you can say "Tutankhamun," I was on the phone to the ROM and bought a ticket for $15.

Then I called my sister. :)  I very seldom manage to get the better of her in terms of ruffling her feathers ;) -- so it was beyond satisfying to be able to pose the question, "Guess what I'm going to be doing on November 7th?"  -- and then tell her & hear her pause -- and then shriek "Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!"  And then ask, in a very small voice, "Can you get me an autograph??"

I remember the day was dark & rainy, but (for perhaps the first time in months), my spirits were buoyant as I took a train into the city and then rode the subway to the museum. I was uninterested in attending the full day's program (I find the history in the Amelia books interesting, but not THAT interesting...!), but I arrived in plenty of time for Peters' scheduled lecture on "Murder, Mystery and Mayhem in Ancient Egypt" at 4 p.m. -- the final event of the day.

The theatre was packed. (I think I was one of the youngest people there...!) The "lecture" turned out to be a wide-ranging informal interview/conversation with fellow mystery writer Aaron Elkins, including questions from the audience.  I don't remember a lot of what was said, unfortunately, but I do remember that MPM was just as funny and charming and delightful as I'd imagined her to be. The hour flew by far too quickly.

Afterward, MPM signed copies of her books in the foyer outside the theatre, many of which were stacked on tables nearby, available for sale. I had brought the copy my sister sent me of "The Ape Who Guards the Balance" as well as a second copy for her to sign for my sister, and she graciously personalized and signed both books (with hieroglyphics, as well as her signature). I said something stupid about how we had both been reading her books for years, trying hard not to gush too much. (I didn't think to bring my camera with me, & of course, there were no cellphones with handy cameras included back then.)  I left the museum with a broad smile on my face. :)

I (very) reluctantly let go of my complete collection of hardcover & paperback Peters/Michaels books before our move last year, since I also have them all in e-reader format. But I did keep my paperbacks of "Patriot's Dream" and "Legend in Green Velvet, " and a hardcover companion/coffee table book, "Amelia Peabody's Egypt."

And, of course, my prized signed copy of "The Ape Who Guards the Balance." :) (The ticket receipt, day's agenda, and note from my sister are all tucked inside the front cover.)

Are you a fellow Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters fan? Do you like reading mysteries? Any favourite authors to recommend? 

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