Judith Merkle Riley dies at 68; noted professor and author of bestselling historical novels

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Judith Merkle Riley, a longtime associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of internationally best-selling historical novels, has died. She was 68.

Riley died of ovarian cancer Sept. 12 at her home in Claremont, said her daughter, Elizabeth Riley.

Riley, who taught under her maiden name, joined the government department faculty at Claremont McKenna and the faculty of Claremont Graduate School in 1982.


She taught organization and management, public and comparative administration, political ideologies, and healthcare and public policy. In 1985, she became the first woman to obtain tenure in the government department at the college, which was founded as Claremont Men’s College and became coeducational in 1976.

“Judith was a supremely gifted storyteller, teacher and colleague, with penetrating social-science insights as to the various ways that people arrange their lives, with a special flair for the odd, outlandish, dramatic and funny ones,” Ward Elliott, a longtime friend and colleague, said in an obituary on the college website.

“She had a wicked, perceptive sense of humor and a native cheerfulness and zest which she kept to the end,” he said.

As an author, Riley wrote six historical novels that were published between 1989 and 1999.

“A Vision of Light,” “In Pursuit of the Green Lion” and “The Water Devil” formed a trilogy set in 14th century medieval England. “The Oracle Glass” was set in 17th century Paris, “The Serpent Garden” in 16th century England and France. And her final novel, “The Master of All Desires,” was set in 16th century France.

“If all the chronicles of earthly life were recorded with such drama, flair and wit, the world would be filled with history majors,” Betty Lukas wrote in her 1989 Times review of “A Vision of Light,” Riley’s first novel.

Riley’s “wonderfully entertaining historical novels are marked by her deep understanding of life and the human condition,” Jean Naggar, Riley’s longtime literary agent, said in an e-mail. “Her remarkable talents as a storyteller rely on her relentless research, her intellectual rigor and her wry satiric wit.”


Her protagonists, Naggar said, “are women and she was deeply engaged in the conflicts that shaped the lives of strong women from the Middle Ages to the French courts of the Renaissance. Her characters sprang off the page with the vigor, courage and warmth that were so much a part of Judith herself.”

Riley, who was born Jan. 14, 1942, in Brunswick, Maine, received her bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Berkeley in 1962. In 1964, she was one of the first women to receive a master’s degree in Soviet regional studies from Harvard University and then put in a stint working as an intelligence analyst for the Navy.

She obtained her doctorate in political science in 1974 at UC Berkeley, where she taught in the department of political science from 1967 to 1971. From 1971 to 1982, she taught at the University of Oregon, where she was director of the Russian and East European Studies Center during her final year.

Riley also wrote a widely praised 1981 book, “Management and Ideology: The Legacy of the International Scientific Management Movement.”

Besides her daughter, she is survived by her son, Marlow; two brothers, Ralph and Ted Merkle; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 330 E. 16th St., Upland.