Friday, August 9, 2013

The Sands of Time

The Valley of the Queens
© 2007 Zureks
Creative Commons 3.0 license
Elizabeth Peters died yesterday morning at the age of 85, in her sleep, after a long battle with cancer. Barbara Michaels, the writer of Gothic romances, also died yesterday at the age of 85 under the same circumstances, because both Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels were pseudonyms of Barbara Mertz, an Egyptologist turned novelist who has given me and many others tremendous pleasure for the last twenty or thirty years. I am sad to read of her passing, and I extend my sympathy to all her friends and family.

As luck would have it, I wrote a post about Peters on this blog a few months ago. You can find it at “Crocodiles, Mummies, Ramses, and More.” As I mentioned in that post, the Barbara Michaels books were never my cup of tea; someone else will, no doubt, write that tribute. And since I did write about Elizabeth Peters so recently, I don’t want to repeat the same information here. Instead, I thought I would write a short memorial for her characters, now bereft of a creator. Dr. Mertz’s website refers to her using the initials MPM (for Mertz Peters Michaels), and I will follow that convention here. 

Characters I Will Miss

Amelia Peabody: Victorian spinster, who at the age of 27 inherits a comfortable fortune from her father and decides that, come hell or high water, she will fulfill her lifetime dream of traveling to Egypt. Proto-feminist Amelia relishes her personally designed calf-length skort and wields a vicious parasol against the many thugs and criminals who cross her path. She practices medicine on the expedition staff and its animals, whether they want her ministrations or not, and earns the sobriquet “Sitt Hakim” (Lady Doctor). Her diaries are the source of the stories in her series.

Radcliffe Emerson: “the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other era”—and not coincidentally the love of Amelia’s life. A master of archeological technique, intelligence, physical prowess, and the solving of crimes—irritated as he becomes each time an evildoer interrupts his work—Emerson does not suffer fools gladly. His irascibility costs him many a fine archeological site for his dig even as it impresses his staff, who call him “Father of Curses” in recognition of his impressive vocabulary. 

Walter Peabody Emerson, better known as Ramses: the precocious, fearless, and adventure-prone child of Peabody and Emerson and, in the minds of many readers (including this one), MPM’s most notable creation. Ramses never disobeys a direct order, but he has an uncanny ability to find the one outrageous deed that his parents have not thought to forbid and immediately engage in it before they realize that a prohibition is necessary. His relationship with Amelia, who insists she has no idea where he developed his verbosity and tendency to split hairs while demonstrating the same traits herself, is as precious as it is hilarious. Alas, Ramses grows up over time, as children have a tendency to do. The early books when he is young and roaming the deserts and pyramids with his cat Bastet are the highlight of the series.

Sethos: The Master Criminal with the hots for Amelia and a gentlemanly side he can’t quite shake, despite years of trying. Need I say more? No matter. I can’t say more, for fear of spoilers.

Vicky Bliss: a tall blonde of Swedish American descent who constantly battles (and sometimes takes advantage of) the male perception that she must be Marilyn Monroe on steroids. Vicky holds a Ph.D. in art history, which lands her a dream job at a museum in Munich and eventually brings her into contact with one John Smythe. As a sideline, encouraged by her boss, Vicky spends a certain portion of her office hours penning The Adventures of Rosanna, a glorious takeoff on bodice rippers that soon becomes, in her own words, “too improbable for publication.” Something about Rosanna hiding in a broom closet to avoid the attentions of Louis XIV while Genghis Khan’s hordes are pounding at the door….

John Smythe (an alias): the classic bad boy with a heart of gold and a mesmerizing effect on women, including Vicky. He’s been accumulating enemies since he forged his first check, even though—or perhaps because—he avoids crimes that cause bodily harm (“the penalties are so much more severe”). John’s speciality is art forgery, which casts suspicion on his motives for wooing Vicky. He also has a nasty habit of sloping off to avoid Interpol, sticking Vicky with the hotel bill, which does not further his romance. Yet somehow, when Vicky needs him, there he is.

Anton Z. Schmidt: the director of Vicky’s museum, always where he is not wanted yet invaluable in the solution of the problems that Vicky and John repeatedly encounter due to his past and her association with him. Schmidt loves food, the unhealthier the better, and he looks like an elderly Santa, but he never forgets a fact or a face. He is a constant reminder of why one should not judge by appearances.

And Honorable Mention

Jacqueline Kirby (aka Jake, never Jackie): middle-aged librarian for a small, Midwest college, divorced, distantly fond of her children, resistant to the idea of acting like a grandmother and to the persistent but seldom-rewarded James, a professor at the same university. A lover of bright colors and fine fashion, Jake moves into writing romance novels of her own while solving a mystery at a Romance Writers convention. I list her separately because the last Kirby novel that appeared was Naked Once More (1989), so she seems to have become frozen in time long before MPM herself passed on. My favorite of the JK novels is The Murders of Richard III (1974), a wonderful revisiting of the ground covered by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time through a different approach.

Characters long outlast their authors, even acquiring a certain immortality. Isn’t that why we create them, so that they will continue on when we no longer can? Amelia, Vicky, Jacqueline, and their associates will survive for as long as readers find them and fall in love with them, as I did so many years ago. But they can no longer grow, and for that I grieve. 

Enjoy the Valley, MPM. No one deserves it more. And thank you for the many hours of joy your books have given and will continue to give.
 “To see the molten orb of the sun lift above the eastern cliffs across the river
and watch the light spread across green fields and rippling water,
ruined temples, and modern villages was a glorious experience.
I had sometimes thought that if I were allowed to return to
the world of the living, this was the place I would choose.”

Elizabeth Peters, Guardian of the Horizon
From the tomb of Nefertari
This image is in the public domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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