Monday, August 7, 2017

Finishing Elizabeth Peters' The Painted Queen: Guest Post by Joan Hess

Longtime devotees of Elizabeth Peters will relish Amelia Peabody's return in this final masterwork that fills in a missing (and juicy) archeological season in a saga that spans the years 1884 to 1923. Based on extensive notes and conversations with Barbara, her devoted friend, Joan Hess, took on the task of completing the last edition of this cherished series. An award-winning mystery writer in her own right, and former president of the American Crime Writers League, Joan delivers a story brimming with intrigue and humor, blending Victorian formality with a clever, tongue-in-cheek wit, true to Barbara’s style. 

Joan Hess is the author of the Claire Malloy Mysteries and the Arly Hanks Mysteries, formally known as the Maggody Mysteries. She is a winner of the American Mystery Award, the Agatha Award, for which she has been nominated five times, and is a member of Sisters in Crime and a former president of the American Crime Writers League. She has contributed to multiple anthologies and book series, including Crosswinds, Deadly Allies, Malice Domestic, and The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories. She also writes the Theo Bloomer mystery series under the pseudonym Joan Hadley. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Joan Hess:
Finishing The Painted Queen

I first met Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters) at the 1986 Bouchercon. She was chatting with Charlotte MacLeod, who was also one of my favorite authors. Awe-stricken, I approached them and managed to croak out compliments. We became close friends over the years, meeting at mystery conventions and later having our infamous Grouchercons that included Margaret Maron, Dorothy Cannell, Sara Caudwell, Patricia Moyes, and Alexandria Ripley. I visited Barbara several times a year, and we talked on the phone often. When she died, I flew to Frederick MD for the funeral. Afterward, Dominick Abel (Barbara's agent and mine as well), Beth Mertz (Barbara's daughter), and I were sitting at the kitchen table when the two of them, obviously colluding, asked me if I would finish The Painted Queen. I vehemently declined, but had to admit I was the logical one to capture the voice and rhythm of the Amelia Peabody series. The hitch was that I was not an Egyptologist nor was I versed in Egypt's complex history. I was promised that Dr. Salima Ikram, a professor in Cairo and a dear friend, would help with the research and advise my of my errors.

The Painted Queen is set in what Barbara called the "lost years" between completed novels, since she didn't want to deal with WW1. The year was 1912 and centers on the discovery of the Nefertiti bust that somewhat mysteriously ended up in a museum in Berlin. (Note to Germans: Egypt wants it back.) Salima, Beth and I met and brainstormed for three days over carrot cake and vodka. Barbara had written the first third of the book and left indecipherable notes in the margins. She and I had discussed the plot and how to avoid libeling the actual Egyptologists. She was worried that her three assassins could not be stretched the the final scene. I assured her she could have as many as she wished. She upped the number, but had not decided how to thwart them. Salima and I skyped madly to devise a satisfactory plot; Beth provided useful information from previous books. The numerous drafts were passed along to others knowledgeable about the sites and excavation procedures. I googled so often that I expected black helicopters in my back yard. I kept as much of her prose as I could, although I had to move bits around to suit the plot. Barbara had indulged herself by writing the final scene, which worked perfectly.

This was the hardest project I'd ever written. I thought about Barbara every time I sat at my desk, remembering her hearty laughter and hugs. I will never be as fine a writer as she was, but I did everything I could to make her proud of The Painted Queen. We made the NYT bestseller list on the strength of her popularity with fans worldwide. I stand in her shadow, and I still miss her.


Barbara Mertz, aka Elizabeth Peters, began her career with a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.  A recognized academic authority on Egyptology, her nonfiction books, including Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, and Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, are in print today, thirty years after their publication. After early publishing success, Mertz found that as the Institute's youngest female graduate at 23, her career options in the field were limited. She turned to writing fiction, using pen names to distinguish that work from her scholarly efforts.  As Barbara Michaels, she published 28 thrillers. As Elizabeth Peters, creator of the legendary Amelia Peabody series, she wrote 20 novels, expressing her passions for adventure, archeology, humor, Edwardian England, and the sands of Egypt.

Over the course of her 50-year career, Barbara was the recipient of numerous writing awards, starting with her first Anthony Award for Best Novel in 1989. A cascade of prestigious awards and nominations followed over the years, including grandmaster and lifetime achievement awards from the Mystery Writers of America, Malice Domestic, and Boucheron. In 2012, she was given the first Amelia Peabody Award, created in her honor, at the Malice Domestic convention. She died in 2013, leaving a partially completed manuscript of The Painted Queen.



Susan Bernhardt said...

What a wonderful post! I am so happy and it will be interesting to read how Joan Hess completes the Amelia Peabody series. I wish someone had done the same for Dorothy Gilman and the Mrs. Pollifax series.

carl brookins said...

Simply put, a marvelous and instructive blog. Puts to rest forever the myth that strong, accomplished authors cannot effectively coordinate and collaborate.
Thank you.

cncbooks said...

I'm reading this now and enjoying it a great deal. Yes, there are some differences but I didn't expect it to be exactly like what she would have written and I'm just so glad to have one last piece of the Amelia Peabody saga. So far, I have to say, "Well done, Ms. Hess" ;-)

Gram said...

I'm with Susan. Hint..hint...