Elmore Leonard, Barbara Mertz and the Passing of American Values
Two prominent authors of crime fiction left us this month, but only one's passing received much public attention. Both, however, deserve consideration, and their deaths mark another milestone in the passing of American values we find ourselves increasingly disposed to mourn.
Elmore Leonard, as you will have divined, is the better-known of the two. His gritty crime novels featured clever dialogue, quirky characters, and fast pace. Leonard, who wrote very good Westerns in the early years of his career, had a highly practical, crowd-pleasing sense of what a writer does. His books achieved great popularity, and many were adapted into successful films, thanks in great part to his down-to-earth approach to fiction writing.
Leonard’s protagonists are typically not old-fashioned heroes; instead they’re raffish, morally compromised, and often criminal. The world they inhabit is corrupt, chaotic and dangerous, and it is in creating this world that Leonard’s greatest contribution may be found. It is a world all too much like our own, and the combination of comedy and dreadfulness it displays is a measure of how far below its ideals the United States has fallen in the decades since the end of World War II, a contrast made even stronger by a familiarity with Leonard’s Western stories and novels.
Barbara Mertz was less widely known than Leonard but equally accomplished. Born Barbara Mertz, she wrote under her own name, the Barbara Michaels pseudonym and as Elizabeth Peters. She achieved great popular success with her 19 novels featuring protagonist Amelia Peabody, a late-Victorian Egyptologist, adventuress, suffragette, and amateur detective.
Happily married to an archaeologist and professor Radcliffe Emerson and mother of Walter Peabody “Ramses” Emerson, Amelia is self-confident, strong-willed, good-humored and benevolent. She is a strong woman who also remains passionately in love with her husband and devoted to her child.
The Peabody family represent all that we might find most laudable about their era: their ability simultaneously to get the most out of life, contribute much to society and act with compassion for others, all while keeping up a stiff upper lip (or at least trying to) and retaining a sense of humor.
The Emersons are, in this regard, representative of the best of Victorian values. The stories, being murder mysteries, also show the flaws of the society in which they’re set, but the ideals to which the Emersons aspire remain true.
Mertz’s other protagonist, Dr. Victoria (Vicky) Bliss, is a scholar of medieval art whose physical beauty keeps getting in the way of people taking her gargantuan IQ seriously. The Bliss books are fast-paced, humorous, and diverting as Bliss encounters mystery and adventure in various charming locations in Europe and elsewhere.
Mertz also wrote four novels featuring librarian Jacqueline Kirby, which included a good deal of humor with a historical backdrop, and she also authored romantic suspense novels, some with supernatural elements.
Both Mertz and Leonard tended to depict a highly disturbed society, with Mertz favoring a zany, comic viewpoint while Leonard portrayed a more violent and frightful place even when his tales were laced with humor. Each, however, showed a respect for old-fashioned values such as courage, integrity, resilience, self-reliance and cheerfulness, even when those values are conspicuous by their absence.