Barbara Mertz couldn’t make it to Cairo for her 85th birthday, so Cairo came to her in Frederick. On Sept. 29, the queen of Egyptian mysteries, known to her legion of fans as Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, enjoyed a celebration fit for ancient royalty — with a very good sense of humor.
More than a hundred of Mertz’s friends and colleagues, some costumed as pharaohs, traveled from as far away as Chicago, Texas and Maine to pay tribute to an author who has published more than 60 books. Wearing a long black gown and jet-black wig, Mertz sat in a rattan throne, sipping a drink and smoking from a silver hookah like a character from “Alice in Wonderland.”
The Nile of life that brought her to this point is legend. By the time she was 23, Mertz had earned a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago, but jobs in academia were scarce for young women. After writing a couple of popular histories of Egypt, she published her first novel, “The Master of Blacktower,” in 1966 and found her true calling. For more than 40 years, like Cleopatra, “she hath pursued conclusions infinite” in several popular series and dozens of stand-alone novels. Nominated many times for various mystery prizes, she won the Agatha Award in 1989 for “Naked Once More.” Now, like Agatha Christie, she has an award of her own: Malice Domestic, the association of mystery writers, recently instituted a prize named for her recurring heroine, Amelia Peabody.