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Prolific, bestselling mystery writer Barbara Mertz, 85, has died

August 09, 2013|By Carolyn Kellogg
  • Barbara Mertz, pictured in Egypt, turned to writing after she was unable to find work related to her training as an Egyptologist.
Barbara Mertz, pictured in Egypt, turned to writing after she was unable… (HarperCollins )

In 85 years, she wrote more than 70 books -- so many that she needed to publish under three different names.

Barbara Mertz was 85 when she died at home in Frederick, Md., on Thursday. Born in a small town in Illinois as Barbara Louise Gross, she attended the University of Chicago on scholarship. Despite having a Ph.D., she was unable to find work in her chosen field, Egyptology.

Instead she became a stay-at-home mom who tried in her spare time to write books. When her first novels failed to sell, she published two nonfiction books about Egypt under her own name.

By the time the 1970s were underway, she had divorced and undertaken her prolific fiction career, birthed her two famous pen names: Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. 

The heroine of Peters' biggest series, Amelia Peabody, was a Belle Epoque-era mystery-solving Egyptologist who wielded a fierce parasol. Other Peters series included the Vicky Bliss books, thrillers featuring an American art history professor, and Jacqueline Kirby, a mystery-solving librarian.

Meanwhile, Barbara Michaels was writing standalone thrillers -- 29 of them.

As Peters and Michaels, Mertz also wrote other books and short fiction. She racked up a shelf of awards, including an Agatha Christie Award for "Naked Once More," the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master award, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic and the Grandmaster Award from Bouchercon.

"I have never been able to understand how people can complain about being lonely or bored; there are so many interesting things to do, so many fascinating people to know," Mertz wrote on her website. "I love my work, and I hope to go on doing it till I drop at the age of 99."

She would have turned 86 in October. The Washington Post's Ron Charles attended her Egypt-themed 85th birthday in 2012, writing that it included a camel, python, temporary pyramid and a hookah, which the author herself puffed at while wearing a Cleopatra-style black wig.

Mertz is survived by two children and six grandchildren.

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