Finding History: Houses of Stone

Every time I move I have to purge books. My friend the Constant Reader benefited most from the last book purge motivated by a move — she took away bags and bags of books. Every time I move, I look again at Houses of Stone by Barbara Michaels. I think about ditching the book. Then I re-read it and keep it. Why, you might ask, would I keep such obvious brain candy?

Barbara Michaels is a pseudonym under which Dr. Barbara Mertz writes gothic romances. Dr. Mertz has a PhD in Egyptology, earned in 1952. She found that she could make a living as a writer, but not so much as an Egyptologist. Sigh. Dr. Mertz also writes mysteries under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters. Of the Peters books, I enjoy the Vickie Bliss books best, as well as the first 3 or 4 of the Amelia Peabody books. (I can’t read the rest of Peabody, not sure why.) I’ve always enjoyed books written by this author under both names. I’ve been reading them since I was in high school and first encountered Crocodile on the Sandbank. Why do I keep Houses of Stone? Because it is a book about a female scholar who haunts used book shops and there makes a Discovery that will Make Her Name in the world of academia. Isn’t that the dream of us all?

I didn’t realize when I first read Peters/Michaels that Dr. Mertz was an academic, nor that I would become one of those. I thought it might be cool to have a doctorate when I was in high school, but also thought it might be a bit far-fetched. And possibly impractical. Now that I’ve earned my doctorate I read Peters/Michaels differently. I also secretly collect possible pseudonyms to use for my future career as a novelist since it seems that careers in academia are impossible to come by.

How on earth are bits of brain candy by Peters/Michaels connected to historical fiction? MPM (Dr. Mertz’s way of referring to all the names she writes under) uses history in her books in a couple of ways. She sets books in the past — the Amelia Peabody books are set in the 19th century. She also uses the past in her books set in the present. Usually the main character has to uncover some Secret Of The Past in order to resolve the mystery in the present. Thus all MPM’s characters do historical research of some kind. They find history. I like this kind of book as well — witness the other book about finding history I’m obsessed with, Possession. Looking for secrets from the past appeals to me. There are probably good reasons from my personal history that this is so, but I think loads of people find this sort of thing appealing. Why else would hideous books like The DaVinci Code sell so well?

Findings of the week so far: I like historical fiction, particularly History-With-A-Twist and books in which people Find History. Food for thought.

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