Elizabeth Peters Essay - Critical Essays

Barbara Louise Gross


By the time Barbara Mertz began writing as Elizabeth Peters, her talents as a spinner of romances were already well developed. Writing her dissertation had taught her to handle a long manuscript. In the late 1950’s, she and her husband, Richard R. Mertz, collaborated on several thrillers; although these early works were never published, they served as an apprenticeship in form, plotting, and character development. Her first published novel was a gothic romance, The Master of Black Tower (1966; as Barbara Michaels).

Soon afterward Peters’s editor suggested that she write the contemporary romances she later published under the pseudonym Barbara Michaels. In these books she successfully managed the transition from the gothic to a lighter style while retaining her mastery of the romance, manipulating and expanding the form but retaining its major elements and adapting them to modern settings. She also began to shed the love-as-goal central theme in favor of justice as prime mover and catalyst for adventure, mystery, and suspense.

Peters asserted that the “softer” mysteries written from a female point of view are as valid as the more violent thrillers written from a male point of view. As a scholar, Peters places truth before all else, so a major theme in her books is the conflict between superstition and reason, with reason winning every time. Despite their comic elements, both Amelia Peabody and her husband, Emerson, are true turn-of-the-century logical positivists in their rational, secular, scientific mind-set. Emerson is anticlerical and democratic, and Amelia, while firmly believing that if God exists, he is an Englishman, is nevertheless a feminist and an egalitarian (both radical positions for a nineteenth century Englishwoman), believing in the value of education as a means of producing a new and better society. Emerson’s strictures on archaeological method show the scientific mind at work, bringing order and method to this new field, and his slanderous comments on his colleagues reflect accurately relations between early (and present-day) Egyptologists.

Peters did more than draw on her archaeological knowledge to create the Amelia Peabody novels, her most popular series. Though wholly her own, with complex personalities, Peters’s characters are loosely based on historical figures. Radcliffe Emerson is similar in many ways to the early Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie—both are handsome, dark-haired, and bearded, with amazing energy, competitive spirits, quick tempers, and apt appellations bestowed by Egyptian workers: “Father of Curses” for Emerson and “Father of Pots” for Petrie.

Amelia has a namesake in Amelia B. Edwards, a Victorian woman who wrote the travel diary A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. She lends Amelia Peabody her taste for adventure and her eccentricity, as well as the nickname of one of Edwards’s friends, “Sitt Hakim,” or “Lady Doctor.” Another of Amelia’s spiritual forebears is Lady Hilda Petrie, wife of Sir Flinders. Hilda was also a scholar who enjoyed the archaeological life and was, like Amelia, unstoppable in her investigations. Actual historical figures make brief appearances throughout the series, lending verisimilitude—a few of these include E. A. Wallis Budge, the keeper of the Egyptian collection at the British Museum and Emerson’s professional rival, and James E. Quibell, who requests medicine for Petrie’s party during a documented historical occurrence. The excavation sites and travel routes are so well detailed that Amelia’s adventures may be followed on a map or excavation guide. Finally, Amelia’s voice and writing style are a perfect match for the journals, diaries, and letters of Victorian women travelers, with the original historical spellings of Arab and Egyptian names intact.

Between 1972 and 1975, Peters established three series characters through whom she could explore a second theme, that of the autonomous female, a woman whose happiness is not conditional on capturing a man. Independent women in the early 1970’s were widely considered pathetic, if not desperate, or worse, sexually aberrant. With the characters of Jacqueline Kirby, Vicky Bliss, and Amelia Peabody Emerson, Peters developed three variants of the independent woman, at the same time bringing changes on the romance form by creating heroines for whom marriage and monogamy are not life’s most important issues. At the same time, she avoided the rape solution common to romances, in which the strong-minded heroine is overcome by superior force.

Jacqueline Kirby Series

All Peters’s heroines are committed to some abstract value, whether it be truth, scholarly integrity, or Jacqueline Kirby’s simple belief that murder is wrong. That is why her heroines, even the least experienced, must solve the problem that the book presents, no matter what the danger. University librarian Jacqueline Kirby, who first appears in The Seventh Sinner (1972), is decidedly independent. A mature woman with two children in their early twenties, she makes no mention of the children’s father. During the course of the series, she exhibits several personas. As the stereotypical librarian, with her long copper hair snatched back in a tight bun and a pair of glasses perched precariously on her nose, she is the no-nonsense professional; with her hair flowing down her back and her voluptuous body clad in an emerald silk pants suit, flirting with some male target, she is a version of her era’s Total Woman.

Jacqueline’s sharp mind is furnished with a mixed bag of information that she uses to unravel the mystery, elucidating it in the library at the end of the book. Her trademark is a large handbag containing a faintly satirical variety of useful objects. The purse itself often comes in handy as a weapon. Another constant is that she enters the action with an academic swain but leaves the party with a debonair police officer, proving herself to be as attractive to men of action as she is to men of intellect. She is pointedly autonomous by choice.

Jacqueline is not only independent, indeed she is cynical and hard-nosed, willingly placing herself and others in jeopardy to solve the mystery. In her, Peters has developed a woman with a tough mind and high standards who is, nevertheless, extremely sexy. Peters uses the series to criticize the classical mystery form; more specifically, in The Murders of Richard III (1974), she draws on her...

(The entire section is 2656 words.)