Dr. Mertz was one of the most popular writers of her era and genres. Her oeuvre encompassed adventure, romance, history, the supernatural and timeless themes such as the imprudence of standing in the way of a woman on a mission. She churned out books with extraordinary speed, once remarking that she had lost count of them sometime around the publication of her 50th volume.
She wrote more than two dozen novels as Barbara Michaels, the pseudonym under which she made her fiction debut with “The Master of Blacktower” in 1966, and more than three dozen as Elizabeth Peters. Those books included a long-running series about the parasol-toting Victorian pyramid explorer Amelia Peabody.
“Between Amelia Peabody and Indiana Jones, it’s Amelia — in wit and daring — by a landslide,” author Paul Theroux once wrote in the New York Times.
Dr. Mertz acknowledged that Peabody — the protagonist of books including “Crocodile on the Sandbank” (1975) and “The Last Camel Died at Noon” (1991) — was not unlike herself. Fascinated from a young age by the ancient world of the pharaohs, Dr. Mertz pursued a doctorate in Egyptology at a time when relatively few women sought and even fewer found professional career opportunities.
She wrote two scholarly books on ancient Egypt in the 1960s but was unable to find employment in academia. When she turned to fiction, she discovered that she had a talent, and that readers had an appetite, for particular tales of historical intrigue.
By weaving the curiosities of ancient Egypt, archaeology and other rarefied fields into her fiction, Dr. Mertz produced one crowd-pleasing yarn after another.
Her fiction, Washington Post writer Sarah Booth Conroy once noted, was “the literary equivalent of multiple gin-and-tonics.” They were “to be taken in times of self-indulgence, physical pain or mental anguish because they come with a guarantee that the evil will be punished, the good will be rewarded, pleasingly plump women will seduce brilliant men with bulging muscles and all will be set right in the world.”
Besides her debut novel, Dr. Mertz’s early Barbara Michaels volumes included “Sons of the Wolf” (1967), “Ammie, Come Home” (1968) and “Someone in the House” (1981). More recent releases included “Vanish With the Rose” (1992), “Dancing Floor” (1997) and “Other Worlds” (1999). Dr. Mertz described the books as “thrillers, many with a supernatural element.”
Elizabeth Peters debuted with “The Jackal’s Head” (1968), and her books tended more, Dr. Mertz said, to “mystery suspense.” Serialized heroines, besides Amelia Peabody, included art historian Vicky Bliss in such books as “Borrower of the Night” (1973) and “Trojan Gold” (1987) and Jacqueline Kirby, the librarian-turned-romance novelist of “Die for Love” (1984) and “Naked Once More” (1989).