Houses of Stone by Barbara Michaels

Title: Houses of Stone
Author: Barbara Michaels (aka Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Mertz)
First published in 1993

Plot summary from Goodreads: When young professor of English Karen Holloway happens on a privately printed volume of verse dating from the early nineteenth century, it’s all in a day’s work. But when a battered manuscript bearing the same mysterious attribution, “Ismene, ” turns up, Karen realizes that it is an important discovery that could be the making of her academic career. Karen immerses herself in a headlong search for the true identity of the unknown author, tracking the provenance of the manuscript to Virginia’s historic Tidewater region.

She is not alone in her quest; academic rivals shadow her steps, trying to gain possession of the valuable manuscript, and the locals are more inquisitive about her activities than seems natural. Fortunately, Karen has the help of her eccentric and able mentor, Peggy, whose historical expertise proves to be invaluable. And, as she painstakingly deciphers the crabbed, charred pages, she begins to wonder whether she has the assistance of Ismene herself. Is the tale of Gothic horror that Ismene tells not a novel but a memoir, the very possession of which may jeopardize Karen’s life? Ismene’s legacy calls out from the past, from an eerie world fraught with terrifying impressions of fire and ice that will not die until the painful truths that inhabit houses of stone are revealed.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how brilliant, capable and well-educated Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters, aka Barbara Mertz was. By all rights, we should really call her Dr. Mertz, since she was awarded a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1952.

I haven’t read a lot of her Amelia Peabody series, where she really puts that Egyptology doctorate to work, although the few I’ve read I’ve enjoyed. I have a pronounced weekness for mid-twentieth century Gothic Romance, which is why I’ve read a lot more of her so-called gothic romances.

Houses of Stone barely hits the romance genre. There are two love interests, one of whom turns out to be every bit as despicable as I predicted, the other who redeems himself somewhat. The real love story in this book is between the main character, Karen, and her scholarship. I read this book with a friend who struggled with Karen. She was prickly, angry, suspicious and occasionally she got things absolutely wrong, but her behavior made sense to me. She was also over being condescended to and treated like an adorable but wayward child.

The first part of the book concerns Karen’s effort to buy the manuscript at the heart of the story. In order to do so, she must both outbid and outmaneuver her rivals, primarily the loathsome Bill Meyer, who is a smooth talking professor from a different university. Once she secures the manuscript with the help of her friend and co-conspirator, Peggy, who is a history professor (and secret sex manual author) at the some university, the story transitions to Karen’s analysis of the manuscript. As part of this analysis, she temporarily moves to the small Virginia town to research Ismene in situ. This results in Karen running afoul of most of the town.

There is one particular scene in the book where Karen has been basically coerced into speaking to a local book club by her landlady, who is an unpleasant sort. Let it never be forgotten that women can be misogynistic asshats, too. In any case, Karen responds with annoyance to being forced into the speech, and regales a room full of old biddies with their first taste of feminist criticism in a talk entitled “The Pen as Penis” (or “Penis as Pen,” I honestly can’t remember which). This was hilarious. As an aside, I would point out that the poisonous Mrs. Fowler who roped her into speaking to her book club for free had no expectation that Bill Meyer, a man who is also in town trying to beat Karen at her own game, would do the same.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the discussions about the history of the gothic novel. Barbara Michaels sly sense of humor comes through on several occasions, including the very end, with the restoration of a painting. She isn’t as successful in painting the gothic atmosphere in this one as in some of her others, but that’s just fine. The strengths of the book make up for the other elements that Michaels leaves intentionally underdeveloped. There is a lot of feminism here.

Karen isn’t interested in being the heroine of her own gothic romance. She wants to make intellectual discoveries that will set her discipline on fire, and being the persecuted innocent woman at the center of a gothic melodrama would just get in the way of accomplishing what she sets out to do. The villains are disarmingly pedestrian: an old biddy with money problems, a couple of competitors who will stop at nothing to beat her, and a society that refuses to take serious women seriously.

This book was published in 1993, but it felt older than that – I graduated from law school in 1992, and while society was more regressive than today, I don’t think it was quite so regressive as painted here. I was actually surprised that it was written in 1993 – it felt more like a late 1970’s or early 1980’s story. The author was extremely prolific, writing around 70 books, three separate series (Amelia Peabody, Vicky Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby), at least three non-fiction works, and numerous standalones. She wrote under three names – her true name, Dr. Barbara Mertz, was the name under which she published her non-fiction works on Egypt, Elizabeth Peters was her mystery name, and Barbara Michaels was the name she used for her gothic romance novels. It’s always been the Barbara Michaels novels towards which I gravitated, although someday I hope to read her Amelia Peabody series. She passed away in 2013 at 85.

The Eternity Ring by Patricia Wentworth

Title: The Eternity Ring
Author: Patricia Wentworth
Series: Miss Silver #14
First Published: 1948

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Mary Stokes was walking through Dead Man’s Copse one evening when she saw, in the beam of a torch, the corpse of a young woman dressed in a black coat, black gloves, no hat and an eternity ring set with diamonds in her ear. But when she and Detective Sergeant Frank Abbott went back to the wood, the body had vanished. This would have been mystery enough for Miss Silver…but then a woman reported that her lodger had gone out on Friday dressed in a black coat, black beret, black shoes and large hoop earrings set all around with little diamonds like those eternity rings. She never came back…

I have really started to develop a soft spot for Patricia Wentworth, which is awesome because she wrote so many books that I’ll be busy with her backlist for years. Decades, maybe.

Eternity Ring is nominally a Miss Silver mystery, although she barely appears in the book at all. The main investigator is Frank Abbot, who is a likeable Scotland Yard Inspector. As has been in the case in the two prior Miss Silver mysteries that I’ve read, this one also had a strong romantic subplot, with a young married couple, Cicely and Frank Hathaway who have separated before the murders begin. When the shadow of suspicion begins to fall on Frank, their future is seriously in jeopardy.

I figured out the murderer pretty early in the book by process primarily of elimination. It’s a good mystery, though, and has some tense moments of real danger near the end of the book. I enjoy Wentworth’s romantic subplots more than Georgette Heyer’s romantic subplots (in her mysteries), and wondered that she never wrote straight up romance until I went digging around on the internet and found that, actually, she came to crime writing by way of a few historical novels and mysteries.

Her first novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, was a piece of historical fiction set during the French revolution. It’s available as a kindle book from Open Road. Her second novel, A Little More Than Kin, seems to be entirely out of print at this point, and doesn’t even show up on Goodreads. I don’t know if it was published under another title, which could explain it’s absence, or if its just wholly lost. Her third and fourth novels were romances: The Devil’s Wind and The Fire Within. The Devil’s Wind looks particularly gripping, set in India, which is also where Wentworth was born, during the Cawnpore Massacre. These are both available from Open Road. Her first mystery, The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, is a bit more difficult to locate, but is still available used.

I still think that I liked Latter End a bit better than this one, and the first one I read, Grey Mask, remains my least favorite of her books. I have a few more on my kindle, and my library has about 25 available, so it’ll be a while before I exhaust my ready supply.