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A novel approach

Dawn broke gently over the gardens of MPM Manor...It’s not the opening to one of her novels, but the real life of mystery writer Barbara Mertz, PhB’47, AM’50, PhD’52, on her ten-acre homestead—named MPM Manor—near Frederick, Maryland. It’s also the life of New York Times best-selling novelists Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels—the pseudonyms that account for the P and the second M of MPM, the acronym by which she is known.

This past year, the preeminent guild in her field, the Mystery Writers of America, gave Mertz its 1998 Grand Master award for lifetime achievement, putting her in the company of such recent winners as Dick Francis, Mickey Spillane, Ruth Rendell, and Tony Hillerman. March sees the release of Barbara Michaels’s Other Worlds (HarperCollins), in which the world’s most famous crime specialists, from Harry Houdini to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, meet in an exclusive club to solve two cases. The Falcon at the Portal (Avon Books), the 11th in Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series, will appear in bookstores in June. Number 12 about Peabody, a Victorian Egyptologist-cum-detective, and her dashing husband, Radcliffe Emerson, is already under contract.

Peters is the author of two other mystery series—known, like the Peabody books, for their humor; well-researched detail; and strong heroines, in these cases Vicky Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby. Michaels’s books tend to be thrillers, often with supernatural elements, rather than straight “whodunits.”

But it was under Mertz’s own name, and emerging from her doctoral work at the Oriental Institute, that her first two books were published: Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt and Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt.

She hadn’t planned it that way, turning to nonfiction only when the first mysteries she wrote didn’t find publishers. When her gothic novel The Master of Blacktower was printed in 1967, its publisher suggested that readers might be confused because of her academic work, so Mertz’s agent chose the name Barbara Michaels. When she wrote the mystery The Jackal’s Head (1968), her agent informed her she was in danger of being labeled “prolific.” So, combining her two children’s names, she came up with Elizabeth Peters. Since then Mertz has published at least one book a year, often two, one under each of her pen names.

Mertz discovers the plots as she writes, often under deadline pressure. “When I find a deadline is looming,” she says, “I suddenly think ‘Oh, my!‚’ and my assistant shoves me at the desk, brings me cups of coffee at regular intervals, and feeds me from time to time. I can do a book in three months if I spend all day, seven days a week at it, and, in fact, I work better that way.”

She adds: “I have a chance to expand my imagination and revel in the kind of fantasies that a lot of people enjoy but aren’t able to turn into a paying occupation. It’s great fun to be able to lose yourself in an imaginary world.”

Mertz travels the real world as well, researching settings around the globe. A February trip to Egypt no doubt yielded fresh material for Elizabeth Peters.

Projects in the percolator include revising her two nonfiction books and writing another entry in the Vicky Bliss series. She and her assistant produce an MPM newsletter, and a number of fans have devoted Web sites to her.

Mertz herself recently wrote on, “As Barbara Michaels I have written about Etruscan archaeology, Victorian culture and history, the Risorgimento, and garden restoration...the Elizabeth Peters novels include such disparate backgrounds as Riemanschneider and Richard III...When people ask ‘When are you going to write a serious book?’ my response is, ‘Every book I have written is a serious book. Especially the mysteries.’”
—Betsy Rossen Elliot

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