PASSINGS: Barbara Mertz

Barbara Mertz

Bestselling mystery writer

Barbara Mertz, 85, a bestselling mystery author who wrote dozens of novels under the pen names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, died Thursday at her home in Frederick, Md., her daughter Elizabeth told her publisher HarperCollins. She had cancer.

Mertz wrote more than 35 mysteries as Peters, including her most popular series about a daring Victorian archaeologist named Amelia Peabody. She also wrote 29 suspense novels as Michaels, and under her own name, she wrote nonfiction books about ancient Egypt.

Born Barbara Louise Gross on Sept. 29, 1927, in Astoria, Ill., Mertz grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and went to the University of Chicago on scholarship. Interested in archaeology, she was drawn to the department of Egyptology and received a doctorate in 1952.

In the post-World War II era, she wasn't encouraged to enter the field. "I recall overhearing one of my professors say to another, 'At least we don't have to worry about finding a job for her. She'll get married,' " she wrote on her website.

She did, and while raising two children, she tried mystery writing. She wrote two nonfiction books about Egypt under her own name before having her first fiction published, "The Master of Blacktower," under the Michaels name.

Under the Peters name — a combination of her children's first names — she produced several mystery series, including 19 books about Peabody.

"Between Amelia Peabody and Indiana Jones, it's Amelia — in wit and daring — by a landslide," Paul Theroux wrote in a New York Times appreciation.

As she wrote about her forceful heroine, Mertz said she became more like her. Once, she said, "I was mealy mouthed, timid, never spoke up, let people push me around."

She divorced in the 1970s but continued her fiction writing despite financial concerns.

In 1998, Mertz received the grandmaster lifetime achievement award from the Mystery Writers of America, the top award from the group.

—Los Angeles Times staff and wire reports

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