I’ve known my friend Dr. Barbara Mertz, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara Michaels, since shortly after my first novel came out in 1983. I wrote Barbara a most admiring fan letter, and she very kindly wrote me back – and included her return address! Well, I was absolutely smitten with her Barbara Michaels books, and a new series she’d just started…the Amelia Peabody books under her Elizabeth Peters nom de plume. So I wrote back again, and, greatly daring, sent her a copy of Yesterday’s Son. Turned out that Barbara adores science fiction and fantasy, and was a Star Trek fan! She loved my book, and thus began a friendship that’s continued for almost three decades.
I felt very honored the first time Barbara invited me to come and visit her at her home in Frederick, MD. I drove up, we had lunch, and we talked and talked about EVERYTHING. The publishing business. Our writing. Her writing. Cats and dogs. Vintage clothing. Her home, a Victorian farmhouse that was built around a small stone building from the late 1600’s. Soon after I began visiting her, Barbara’s books really took off, and she began expanding and improving her garden. It’s a big garden, with several ponds, lots of plantings, old roses, a reflecting pool, a gazebo, and lots of fascinating little nooks where you can sit and just appreciate the view, and the plantings. Often, one of her cats will wander by and sit down to keep you company.
In case you’re not familiar with Barbara’s work, she’s one of the foremost mystery writers in the USA. Her books regularly hit the NY Times bestseller list, especially those that feature her Victorian female detective, the redoubtable Amelia Peabody Emerson. (The first book is Crocodile on the Sandbank, and it’s laugh out loud funny.)
If you’re familiar with her Elizabeth Peters books, but haven’t read the Barbara Michaels novels, by all means look them up. Like the Peters books, they’re excellent mysteries, well-researched, and there’s always some good humor. But many of the Michaels books also have an occult element. Books such as Be Buried in the Rain are often genuinely creepy, and Barbara makes you believe the spooky stuff.
Here’s a link to Barbara’s website, so you can check out her books.
I generally try to make the trip up to Barbara’s house a couple of times a year. I dedicated Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom to her, so I lost no time in sending her a copy as soon as Disney sent me a couple of advance copies. Barbara was tickled with my “fulsome dedication,” and wrote me a note to thank me. I called her, to ask her when would be a good time for my spring visit to see her garden. Barbara told me she was hosting a small gathering of mystery writers after the Malice Domestic mystery convention held in DC each year, and would Michael and I like to come up for the afternoon? I said, yes, and asked what I could bring. Barbara knows I can cook, so she asked whether I’d make something she’d been craving a bit…a pineapple upside down cake. No problem, I said!
Accordingly, Michael and I hopped into the car and drove up to Frederick that cloudy Sunday. Rain clouds drifted across the sky, but it didn’t actually rain during the two hour drive. When we arrived at Barbara’s house, we found mystery writer Joan Hess there to greet us. I’d met Joan before, at an American Library Association conference years ago, so we knew each other slightly. Joan is, as Barbara says, “a good egg.” She’s also a good writer.
We had barely gotten the pineapple upside down cake unloaded, before Barbara herself came downstairs. Then another car pulled up, and suddenly the sunroom was filled with mystery writers and their spouses. Dorothy Cannell and her husband were there. I’d read The Thin Woman years ago, on Barbara’s recommendation. It was excellent. Check it out!
Margaret Maron and her husband were also there. I haven’t read Margaret’s books, but after meeting her, I plan to. She writes mysteries with a Southern sensibility.
Our friend Elizabeth Foxwell, who is an editor, writer, and expert on the mystery field, also arrived. Beth is a Writer Beware “ambassador” from way back.
And last, but certainly not least, was author Parnell Hall. Parnell is a hoot. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and he writes hilarious songs and sings them about being an author. Catch his video and singing on “King of Kindle.” We were all cracking up when we saw it.
As the afternoon went on, we all ate a delicious vegetarian lasagna, sampled cheeses, ate salad and generally imbibed probably more than was good for us. (Michael, who was driving, didn’t drink. I had a couple of gin and tonics.) We walked around the garden and admired all of the flowers that were out. (See garden pics.) And we TALKED.
Writers love to talk, and when you get seven writers and their articulate friends or spouses in the same room, the talk is free-ranging and fun. We talked about everything from Egypt to dogs and cats, from copy-editors we have known and detested, to writing scams, e-books, the Google book settlement, to assorted interesting ways to murder people. It’s a good thing I knew what these folks did for a living, or it would have made me uneasy to watch the mystery writers eyes light up as they described some particularly original (and often grisly) way to bump off members of the species homo sapiens.
Finally, it was time to serve dessert, and I was gratified at the speed with which my pineapple upside down cake, topped off with a dollop whipped cream, vanished. By the time we finished dessert, it was heading for nine o’clock, and the party was breaking up. We said our goodbyes, and headed out into the (by now) rainy evening. As we drove along, I called Victoria Strauss on my cell phone to tell her I’d seen Barbara, and that Barbara had sent her her best. Vic and I chatted for a little while, then she said, “Hold on.”
I held on, and when she came back, she said, “This is strange. They’re saying on the television that the President is going to address the nation. This late on a Sunday night?”
We agreed that was weird. We hung up, and I flipped on the radio.
And you all know what happened then, right?
Odd, but nobody at the mystery writers’ party had suggested being shot by a Navy S.E.A.L. team as a way to get rid of a character…