Friday, September 15, 2017

Camels, Tea, and Steel-Tipped Parasols

In a pleasant surprise, the wonderful production people at the New Books Network posted my interview with Joan Hess within twenty-four hours.

Some of you may know Joan Hess as a prolific writer of contemporary mysteries, many of them featuring Claire Malloy and another series set in the fictional town of Maggody. But Joan Hess was also a friend of Barbara Mertz, the Egyptologist turned novelist whom I memorialized in “The Sands of Time.” In that post I lamented several characters whom Barbara Mertz created under the pen name of Elizabeth Peters: most notably, Amelia Peabody; her husband, Radcliffe Emerson; and their son, Walter Peabody Emerson, better known as Ramses.

Well, it turns out I mourned their disappearance prematurely. As detailed in the interview, Joan Hess agreed after many refusals to take on the task of completing her friend’s final manuscript, about one-third of which Barbara/Elizabeth had finished before she died. The result is The Painted Queen—a rollicking adventure in the true Elizabeth Peters style that mixes archaeology, criminal activities, murder, and a series of bizarre but engaging twists that involve monocles, camels, and a writer of bodice rippers.

I understand perfectly why Joan Hess resisted the call. How do you finish another person’s manuscript, no matter how well you knew that person or how many scribbled notes she left (many of them illegible, it turns out)? Each author’s style is her own, and if you write contemporary mysteries set in small-town America and your friend uses her vast experience of archaeological digs to produce books set in Victorian and Edwardian England and Egypt, that gap between approaches becomes enormous. As much as I enjoy reading the books that emerge from my writers’ group and coop press, I can’t imagine taking over sparkling holiday romances, edgy historical fantasy with a psychedelic twist, intense character studies of contemporary women’s lives, or the many other works that my friends regularly write. No doubt they would balk at finishing a book inspired by four decades of researching medieval Russia.

Yet it’s to Joan Hess’s credit that she not only took on the project despite her doubts but completed it regardless of the very real stresses imposed by life. The Painted Queen is a beautiful tribute to a beloved author, but it is also a testament to the dedication required to write while mourning the friend whose work sits in front of you every day, demanding that you imagine how that friend would tackle the situations she created and how you can change things (because for sure, she would have changed things during the writing) to enhance the story without distorting its essence, to allow a large set of established characters to grow and develop yet remain true to themselves.

It’s also a darned good story. I learned a lot during this interview—about Barbara Mertz and her flagship series, of course, but also about the complexity of writing under a particular set of circumstances. Although I doubt I could have done the same, I’m very glad that Joan Hess did.

In a small change from my usual style, I am reproducing only part of the post that first aired on New Books in Historical Fiction. I expanded the first part into the longer discussion above.

In this last adventure, set in 1912, Peabody and Emerson have barely set foot in Cairo before the first death occurs: an unknown man wearing a monocle who collapses just inside the door of the bathroom where Peabody is soaking off the grime of her train ride from Alexandria. There is no question that the death is murder, and discovering the identity of the corpse, the reason for his carrying a card bearing the single word “Judas,” and the hand behind the knife that has dispatched the unwanted visitor consumes Peabody and Emerson even as they devote some of their attention to the excavation that has brought them to Egypt. The murderer could be the Master Criminal, defending Peabody from harm. Or s/he could be the representative of a secret society of monocle wearers, bent on revenge.

As Peabody and Emerson, with help from the junior members of their extended family, strive to figure out what’s going on, they must also deal with less deadly intrusions from a missionary named Dullard and the ineffable Ermintrude de Vere Smith, writer of racy romance novels, as well as a disappearing archeologist and an apparently nonstop succession of forgeries purporting to be statues of Nefertiti—the Painted Queen. It all makes for a deliciously entertaining sendoff to a much beloved series, one that Peabody and Emerson fans should not miss.

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