Although a brilliant student, Mertz was not taken seriously by her fellow graduate students or most of her professors, all of whom were male. “I recall overhearing one of my professors say to another, ‘At least we don’t have to worry about finding a job for her. She’ll get married,’” Mertz recalled.
Excluded from academic and field work because of her gender, Mertz wrote two highly acclaimed books in the 1960s about the history and customs of pharaonic Egypt, both of which are still in print. Lively and filled with humor, they’re hardly what you might expect from an academic text, as the New York Times pointed out in its review of one of them. Its author, the reviewer noted, “writes with an informal grace and contagious enthusiasm rarely found in qualified scholars.”
In the late 1960s, Mertz, who died in 2013, turned to fiction, which turned out to be far more lucrative. She produced more than sixty novels in her five-decade writing career. By far the most popular were the twenty books featuring the indomitable Amelia Peabody. The fictional Amelia was loosely based on the Victorian novelist and travel writer Amelia Edwards, whose love affair with Egypt led her to become one of the major figures in British Egyptology. Like Edwards, Amelia Peabody, who first sets foot in Egypt in the 1880s, is a wealthy, independent, unmarried woman with a feminist streak, a yen for travel and adventure, and little interest in finding a husband.
But, unlike the real Amelia, Peabody changes her mind about marriage when she meets the handsome, irascible Egyptologist Radcliffe Emerson, who is as strong-minded and stubborn as she. Contentious at first, their relationship develops into an egalitarian, sexually charged partnership as they embark on a series of archaeological excavations that almost always involve at least one murder. “Another dead body,” their exasperated Egyptian foreman, Abdullah, mutters in Lion in the Valley, the fourth book in the series. “Every year it is the same. Every year, another dead body…”
Readers of the series have often compared Amelia to Indiana Jones, another famous fictional Egyptologist. But in the view of the writer and translator Peter Theroux, there’s no contest about who’s the more distinctive character. In a review in the New York Times, Theroux wrote, “It’s Amelia—in wit and daring—by a landslide.’”