This story starts at a kitchen table in Maryland and ends on the book world’s most prestigious bestseller list. In between is a memorable stop in Madison.
Elizabeth Peters was a highly popular writer of historical fiction, especially a series of mysteries featuring the amateur Egyptologist Amelia Peabody. Peters died in 2013.
As the obituaries noted, Elizabeth Peters was a pseudonym for Barbara Mertz, a Maryland author who chose the pen name utilizing the names of her two children: Elizabeth and Peter. Mertz died at 85, having completed about one-third of her 20th and final Amelia Peabody mystery.
Among the mourners at Mertz’s funeral was her close friend and fellow mystery author Joan Hess, who lives in Austin, Texas.
After the service, back at the Mertz home, Hess was chatting at the kitchen table with Barbara’s daughter, Beth Mertz, and the literary agent Dominick Abel. The subject of the unfinished manuscript was raised. It became clear that Beth Mertz and Abel—who represented Barbara Mertz, and represents Hess—were hoping Hess would finish the last Amelia Peabody novel.
“What did you say?” I asked Hess last month.
“I said, ‘Hell, no!’” Hess replied. Hess was speaking to me by phone from her home in Austin.
In a few days I was going to be interviewing Hess at the Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison about “The Painted Queen,” a novel by Barbara Mertz and Joan Hess. So I knew that Hess had in fact agreed to finish the manuscript.
“What changed your mind?” I asked.
Hess laughed. “They bribed me with carrot cake and vodka.”
I’ve been doing author interviews at events at Mystery to Me for two years now and have enjoyed almost all of them.
The night of July 26—Beth Mertz came, too—was special. Not only because of the unusual circumstances behind the publication of “The Painted Queen,” but because in person Joan Hess turned out to be as spirited, humorous and salty as she was in our phone chat.
Illness and a bad hip kept her in a wheelchair that night, but Hess was undaunted. Entering the store, she spied the carrot cake that Mystery to Me proprietor Joanne Berg and brought for the occasion. There was wine, too, but I sensed from Hess that something was missing.
I phoned home. “Bring vodka!”
Mrs. Moe is resourceful, and we live near the bookstore. She was there in minutes with the requested libation. She and Hess bonded.
The store was packed with readers of the Peabody novels, grateful to hear the backstory from Beth Mertz of how the series originated, and to hear from Hess how she managed the difficult task of assuming another writer’s voice to finish “The Painted Queen.”
It helped that Hess and Barbara Mertz were good friends. They met in 1986, at a mystery authors’ convention. Hess was the neophyte—“a one-book wonder,” she called herself—and had to summon her courage to approach Mertz. When she did, she complimented the established author on being able to write steamy sex scenes without profanity. Mertz laughed. A friendship began.
That friendship grew over time. They even traveled to Egypt together. And in memory of that trip, for Mertz’s 80th birthday party, Hess rented a camel.
Mertz’s novels were known for their historical accuracy, so in finishing “The Painted Queen” Hess called on Salima Ikram, an expert on ancient Egypt, for assistance.
At the conclusion of the Madison event, as Hess signed books for delighted fans, I had a moment with Beth Mertz, who said her great hope was that the “The Painted Queen” could find its way onto the New York Times bestseller list. Her mother had made the list, she said, but as far as Beth knew, Joan Hess—despite a shelfful of well-regarded novels—had not.
A little over two weeks later, there it was. I opened the August 13 New York Times Book Review and saw that “The Painted Queen” had entered the hardcover fiction list at number 7. A sidebar piece included a bit of the back story and even a small photo of Hess.
A few days later, I called Joan in Austin.
“How does it feel to be a bestselling author?” I asked.
“I’m thrilled,” she said.
From across the country, she said, “You can say I either giggled or chortled.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.