Elizabeth Peters aka Barbara Michaels aka Barbara Mertz

Books: Mystery | Romance

Jacqueline Kirby Mysteries: The Seventh Sinner (1972), The Murders of Richard III (1974), Die for Love (1984), Naked Once More (1989)

Devil May Care (1977)

as Barbara Michaels: Into the Darkness (1990)

Jacqueline Kirby

The Seventh Sinner (1972)

I read one book in this series years and years ago, and remembered next to nothing about it other than I wanted to read the other books in the series, so when I came across the ebooks on sale, I snatched them up.

First, this story was copyrighted in 1972, which I hadn't realized until I started. Second, I think it has aged surprisingly well, with a few anachronisms (like the smoking and the clothes and a couple of mentions of previous political events, such as the Six Days War).

And some things are very slow to change.

"After a year in Rome I'm used to being pinched," Ann said.

Part of the reason it may have aged well is that characters were all students of antiquities. When the characters are talking about saints and visiting ancient ruins, you've already got a pretty good sense of timelessness.

That and so many bits were pretty much outside of time.

Half the trouble in human relations arises from expecting human beings to conform to a single one-dimensional image. We are all hydra-headed monsters. But most people never learn that.

"It will be a long, long time," said Jean softly, "before I can close my eyes at night without seeing him the way he looked, just before—"

"Forget it. I mean it literally, even if it does sound cruel. The time will come when you won't think of it. And much sooner than you believe."

"But that bothers me too. Death is such a final thing, it ought to…well, affect the world more than it does."

But of course the best part of this story was that Jacqueline Kirby is middle aged.

"That's one of the advantages of middle age. You don't have to pretend you're cultured."

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and dove right into the next book in the series (there aren't many).

Publisher: William Morrow

The Murders of Richard III (1974)

The second Jacqueline Kirby book finds her in England. Her friend Thomas is a Ricardian–part of a group that wants to rehabilitate the image of Richard III.

It's been dated to about 1580. Like most of the other portraits of Richard, it was probably copied from a lost original. The only one that might be a contemporary portrait is in the Royal Collection. When it was X-rayed recently, the experts found that parts of it had been painted over. Originally the right shoulder was lower, even with the left, and the eyes were not so narrow and slitlike."

"I mean his real character, not the one the Tudor historians invented. Everything that is known about Richard's actions supports the picture of a man of rare integrity, kindness, and courage. At the age of eighteen he commanded armies, and led them well. He administered the northern provinces for his brother the king, and won lasting loyalty for the house of York by his scrupulous fairness and concern for the rights of the ordinary citizen against rapacious nobles. He supported the arts. He was deeply religious."

Thomas takes her to a proper English house party, where his group hopes to reveal a letter proving that Richard III did not kill his nephews, but while there, as series of morbid jokes, possibly reenacting the murders of which Richard III was accused, worries Jacqueline.

First, I really like Jacqueline as a character. She's middle aged, and she's got a fabulous attitude.

"No wonder I love England," she remarked some time later, after devouring most of a plate of cream-filled buns. "People eat so often here. Morning tea, breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea —"

"I don't think I can afford you," said Thomas.

"I know you can't." Jacqueline gave him a look that left him momentarily speechless.

"Where did you acquire your stock of expletives? I haven't heard anyone say 'cripes' since I was eight years old."

"I'm trying to reform my vocabulary. The students have a bad effect on me. The words sound foul enough coming from them, but from a lady of my years and dignity…"

Remember, this is set in the early 1970s.

But it's really fun and amusing.

To walk in the rain with the lady you love is romantic when you are eighteen. When you are fifty it is merely conducive to sniffles and rheumatism.

The mystery is particularly interesting, since a book titled The Murders of Richard III doesn't actually have murders. And aside from the lack of modern technology, this book has aged well. Probably the setting in an old English castle where everyone dresses as characters from Richard's time helps, but there is still something about the writing that has allowed the book to age well.

Now I just have to wait for the next book in the series to go on sale.

Publisher: William Morrow

Die for Love (1984)

The third Jacqueline Kirby book finds Jacqueline headed to New York for a romance conference (it was the only thing she could find to let her escape Nebraska for awhile).

Why do I like Jacqueline?

"You can have this when I'm finished, if you like."

"Really? Oh, that's really nice! But you won't finish it before we get to New York."

"Oh yes, I will."

"Well, that is really nice of you. Books are so expensive. I read four or five of them a week, and that really adds up."

She reads fast and she is generous with books she has been given for free.

"Then you must have a weakness for weirdos."

"I do—if you mean people with unorthodox opinions about obscure subjects. They're much more interesting than so-called normal people."

Plus she's a fan of weirdos.

She arrives at the conference and is surprised by the amount of hostility she feels in the undercurrents–and that most of the featured authors are not what they seem.

This story aged a little less well than the previous two, mostly because I don't believe that modern fandom is at all what was presented here.

It was fun, but I didn't like it as well as the earlier books.

Publisher: William Morrow

Naked Once More (1989)

Naked Once MoreHow old is this book?

This old.

Jacqueline proceeded on her way, pleased but wondering how the young officer had known who she was. She couldn't be the only handsome middle-aged lady with green eyes and auburn hair driving a car with New York plates and a Mondale-Ferraro sticker on the bumper.

I read this ages and ages ago, after I found it in the used book store. And I never found any other books in the series used. But eventually I found them as ebooks, and eventually the final book went on sale.

Interestingly, it was ahead of it's time in many ways.

She hoped her lack of glamour would get the point across to St. John, though she would have scorned to make herself unattractive for that reason alone. The messages some men professed to read in sexy clothes and makeup were pure wishful thinking. By their archaic standards, the only garment that didn't give them a reasonable excuse for rape was the all-enveloping robe and face veil of fundamentalist Moslem countries.

It was as fun as I remember. Over the top at times, certainly, but that's part of its charm.

Jacqueline started the engine. "Good-bye, Mr. Spencer. I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed this."

"Oh, I doubt that. I'll bet you could if you tried." He stepped back.

What makes the story is Jackqueline's wit combined with her self-awareness. She recognizes when she is being ridiculous and goes on to own it.

Jacqueline settled herself behind the gate on a folding stool she had brought with her, wondering why the hades she was wasting her time on this side issue. Could it be— was it possible— that she was just plain nosy, as some people had claimed? Yes, it was, Jacqueline decided.

I admire that in anyone, but it's more fun when it's a middle aged woman who knows her own mind.

The people who yearned for the good old days might not have enjoyed the reality; good old days before penicillin and heart surgery, social security and minimum wages.

Not to mention air-conditioning, imported chocolates in every supermarket, and the demise of the corset. So far as Jacqueline was concerned, they could keep the good old days.

Oh. Right. There is a mystery here.

Seven years earlier best-selling author Kathleen Darcy disappeared. Now enough time has passed that she has been declared dead, and her heirs are looking for someone to write the sequel to the book that made her famous (and millions of dollars).

Since Jacqueline loved the book, she decides to put herself in the running once she learns who the other candidates are–not because she believes she can write the book Kathleen Darcy could have written, but because she's worried that most of the other candidates would do a terrible job of it.

It's very silly, but it's also fun, and I enjoyed it very much.

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Devil May Care (1977)

Ellie is heading to VA to housesit while her Aunt Kate heads on a short vacation. But after Kate leaves, a series of strange events leads her to wonder if something supernatural is happening in the house.

First, Ellie's fiance is awful, and you can see the whole thing heading south, even if Henry can't. I really like the way that was done.

"I wouldn't josh you, darling," Ellie said. Her voice had a peculiar note. Henry had heard that tone rather often in the last few months. It did not occur to him to wonder about it, which was perhaps unfortunate for him.

Opening the book with Henry makes Kate's immediate dislike of him understandable, and you're rooting for her to help Ellie see the light.

Henry said heartily. "You and I are going to be pals, Aunt Kate."

Kate turned and gave him a long, thoughtful look.

I was a little bit amused by Ted, who is gay, although those words are never ever said. It's all subtext and insinuation.

It's a fun story, and I very much enjoyed it.

Publisher: William Morrow

January 2018 | Rating: 7/10

Writing as Barbara Michaels

Into the Darkness (1990)

Meg Venturi's grandfather is a renowned jeweler, and his death leaves her his heir. But Meg has tried to escape the business and her past, including the deaths of her parents that led her to being raised by her grandparents and becoming the sole heir.

It wasn't until after she learned the truth about what had happened to her father that her love of jewels was contaminated and she turned away from anything that would remind her of his treachery.

This is a mystery as much as a romance, but I found the mystery parts a bit confusing, in that there were a couple of leaps I missed, despite being pretty sure who the bad guy in the story was.

Yet despite that, I did enjoy the story, mostly because I really like all her secondary characters, and how she always has middle aged and older characters who are fully developed.

You know Janine's got three kids now? I think I've got some pictures of the baby—" He reached toward his pocket.

"What do you mean, think?" Barby demanded. "You'd as soon go out without your pants as without those pictures.

So despite the weakness of the mystery, and that the romance seemed a little off to me, I did enjoy the story and will close with this quote.

"That's the only way to live. Enjoying people while they're with us, enjoying the memories after they're gone."

Publisher: HarperCollins

January 2018 | Rating: 6.5/10