Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Gifts of Mystery: Egyptologist Barbara Mertz

By Barbara Peterson

The Murders of Richard III, first published in 1974, was the first Elizabeth Peters (Egyptologist Barbara Mertz) novel I ever read. I'm not sure when I first read it, probably in 1976, when I was fifteen, and rather than immediately becoming a fan of Elizabeth Peters, I actually became a fan of Richard III.

Who is Richard III, you're asking? Born in 1452, he was the third son of Richard, Duke of York, who wanted to be King of England, and was prepared to wage war against the man currently occupying that throne, Henry VI. As it turned out, Richard died in one of the battles of the Wars of the Roses (Yorkists' symbol was a white rose, Henry's House of Lancaster, a red rose), but his son, Edward, ended up on the throne, as Edward IV.

Edward had two younger brothers, Clarence, and Richard. Edward married a commoner, to the great displeasure of the country, who expected their kings to marry foreign princesses to consolidate the country's power overseas. Edward died at the age of 40, Clarence was dead (executed by order of Edward, who thought that Clarence had betrayed him) and Richard came to the throne as Richard III.

Richard declared Edward's children, of whom he had three, two boys and a girl, illegitimate, and thus barred from succession. Visit the Tower of London any day of the week, and on a tour one of the Beefeaters will doubtless show you the room where the two boys were kept, and where they were killed on Richard's orders, smothered to death, and then buried beneath some stairs.

"Hah!" I say. All lies!

Believe it or not, the boys probably survived Richard III, and instead were killed by Henry VII, the last Lancastrian king, who only won the battle of Bosworth, when a couple of Richard's loyal vassals betrayed him and allowed him to be surrounded by the enemy and killed. Henry VII had them killed, because he reversed the "bill of attainder" which made the boys illegitimate, so he could marry their sister Elizabeth, who had a better claim to the throne than he did (apart from right of conquest) to unite the two houses and bring the Wars of the Roses to an end.

The creep.

After Henry VII came his son, Henry VIII, whim I'm sure everyone knows as the guy who had six wives and ordered the dissolution of the monasteries. With his ascension to the throne, the Tudor dynasty was established.
But back to Richard III.

In Peters' novel, her main characters, beautiful librarian Jacqueline Kirby, and Thomas Carter, her gentleman friend, visit an English house party on a weekend when a group of Richard III enthusiasts are having a meeting. Practical jokes, designed to mimic the deaths of actual people in the life of Richard III, seem to be escalating toward murder...can Jacqueline Kirby save the day?

It is clear, throughout the book, that Elizabeth Peters is on the side of those who believe that Richard III was innocent of the heinous crime of having his nephews killed, and a lot of other stuff that people who have seen the William Shakespeare play Richard III think they know about the guy.

And as I say, it was after that book that I started researching Richard III myself, and became a champion for him in some small way. (There are a lot of us about!)

Who knows how many Americans first became interested in Richard after reading her book - the American branch of the Richard III Society is a rather large one...though there were certainly many of them before 1974!

Elizabeth Peters' influence on American's interest in Egyptology is easier to track.

Just a year after her Richard III novel, in 1975, she wrote a book called Crocodile on the Sandbank. In 1884 England, spinster Amelia Peabody inherits a great deal of money, and decides to go traveling. She ends up in Egypt, where she falls in love with the country and the infant science of Egyptology, and eventually with an Egyptologist named Radcliffe Emerson. There's a mystery to solve, of course, which she does in her own inimitable style.

I came across this book rather later on, in the 1980s. I can't claim that once again Peters' sent me on a journey, this time into Egyptology (that had already been accomplished when I caught a late night showing of Charlie Chan in Egypt), it merely cemented my interest. But this time it also turned me into a permanent fan of Elizabeth Peters.

Peters, in real life Barbara Mertz, actually is an Egyptologist, and she writes about the subject with expertise, and her own writing style, as inimitable as Amelia Peabody's detective skills!

Peters did not write a sequel to Crocodile on the Sandbank until six years later, when The Curse of the Pharaohs appeared. And it took another four years until The Mummy Case appeared. (Barbara Mertz is a prolific writer. In the many years between those three Peabody books, she wrote half a dozen books featuring other characters) Since 1985, however, either because Amelia Peabody became Peters' favorite character or because the Peabody books sold so well, sequels started to appear on a yearly basis, so that now, in 2008, there are a total of 18.

All of the Amelia Peabody books take place, for the most part, in Egypt, and have to deal with Egyptology and mysteries and murders arising from that field. It was not until Tomb of the Golden Bird, published in 2006, that they finally find (with the assistance of Howard Carter, who got to take the credit!) the tomb of King Tutankhamon (that'd be in 1922).

How do I know Peters' Amelia Peabody series has inspired many people to study Egyptology - albeit simply as a hobby, not actually becoming Egyptologists themselves?

Well, because in addition to these fiction books, Peters' published Amelia Peabody's Egypt, a non-fiction work (with fiction interludes) which is a concordance of what life was like in the England and Egypt of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the status of Egyptology at that time as well. Obviously this was produced in part at least to honor a request from fans for as much information as they could get on the subject.

Barbara Mertz was born on September 29, 1927. To date, she's written 65 fiction books, two non-fiction, on Egyptology, and one a combination of both (the previously mentioned Amelia Peabody's Egypt.

That's a fantastic legacy, and more than just the pleasures to be found in reading the books themselves, she's catapulted many a reader on a journey into education, as well. For myself, I owe her a great debt. For the interests and hobbies that have enriched my life for over twenty years, all thanks to the magic of Barbara Mertz' writing, may I say, thank you! 

The Author: Barbara Peterson is a freelance writer and researcher, based in Virginia, USA.

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