The news that Elmore Leonard passed away brought out a number of loving tributes on my Twitter feed, and more than a dozen links to the great crime novelist’s rules for writing. A lot of people say they’ve been influenced by Leonard. That, in fact, every crime writer owes him a debt. I’m not familiar with much of his work – most of my exposure has been through the film and TV adaptations – but the news of his death got me thinking, because one of my favorite writers passed away recently, too, and Twitter isn’t trending her name.
When I was thirteen, my mother and I took a trip to the Beverly Hills Public Library which looked much the same then as it does now, though I expect the computers were fewer, and boxier, and did not connect to the internet. My mother brought me up to the New Fiction section which is still located on the same bank of built-in bookshelves, surrounded by mahogany and mint green. She scanned those shelves and pulled down a hardback novel with a yellow spine, wrapped in already scuffed plastic, which she handed to me.
At thirteen I was growing out of what we now call YA, and I had two great loves – mysteries and ancient Egypt. Seeing a Large Cat by Elizabeth Peters was a mystery about archaeologists on and around the Nile. There was no fanfare, no ceremony; I don’t think my mother had ever read anything by the author, but I couldn’t wait to get my library card – a card I am still using fifteen years later – and check the book out.
Thus began a decade-long affair which spanned 38 books and three series, and produced two amateur attempts at a screenplay adaptation, and one of only two fan letters I’ve ever written. I never got to meet her in person.
At some point I discovered ‘Elizabeth Peters’ was a pseudonym for Barbara Mertz, who also wrote under the nom de plume of Barbara Michaels. It was the mysteries written under the Peters name that really drew me in, particularly the Amelia Peabody series which featured a family of adventuring Egyptologists at the turn of the 20th century. The series followed the intrepid, entertaining, and ever-expanding Peabody-Emersons from 1880 through World War I, and for me, the wait between The Falcon at the Portal and He Shall Thunder in the Sky was as agonizing as the wait between Harry Potter books.
This is mostly because the fate of my very first ‘will-they-won’t-they’ couple hung in the balance. Through Peters’ writing, I watched an epic romance unfold, and let me tell you, Ramses Emerson set the bar pretty high for fictional boyfriends.
But when online profiles ask for lists of my favorite authors, I never include Elizabeth Peters, which is kind of ridiculous since the only writer to rival her in number of books on my shelf is Agatha Christie. There’s an element of embarrassment in admitting she’s one of my inspirations. Peters’ work is not uniformly excellent. She had a long, prolific career, but even at her best, she’s not a ‘literary writer.’ I internalized a sort of shame of confessing how much her books affected my life.
Which is strange because I’m not a literary writer.
I’ve never been ‘literary’ and I never will. I’ll never even be an Elmore Leonard, whose writing is considered a peak to which other writers should aspire. I write to entertain, to transport, and to tell a good story that will hopefully leave readers with a smile. And that’s exactly what Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels/Barbara Mertz did for me, over and over again. She told a good story. Whether her sentences were crafted with artistry is irrelevant. She entertained me, transported me, and left me with a smile.
And she taught me a few things along the way.