A Final Mystery for Amelia Peabody, Egyptologist and Sleuth

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Joan Hess

LAST HURRAH: When the mystery writer Barbara Mertz died, in 2013, she left behind an unfinished manuscript in her long-running series about the early-20th-century Egyptologist and amateur sleuth Amelia Peabody. Mertz (who wrote the series under the name Elizabeth Peters) was herself an accomplished Egyptologist, with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and she often based her novels on actual episodes from the discipline’s colorful history — as in the new book, “The Painted Queen,” about the discovery and theft of a priceless bust of Nefertiti. But she hadn’t made much progress when she fell ill, and was still working out details of the plot with occasional help from her friend and fellow novelist Joan Hess. So her estate, naturally enough, asked Hess if she would finish the book that Mertz had started. “My first response was an adamant refusal,” Hess writes in a preface to “The Painted Queen,” new at No. 7 on the hardcover fiction list. “The idea of attempting to capture her voice, her erudite style, her wit and her vast knowledge of archaeology in the early 20th century seemed ludicrous. I lost that one, obviously.”

Hess and Mertz met at a mystery conference 30 years ago and clicked right away. Their friendship, as described in Hess’s preface, sounds like the stuff of buddy movies. “We laughed often, engaged in a lengthy exchange of weird presents involving sheep and had weekend parties with our clever friends,” Hess writes. “She invited me to accompany her on one of her annual trips to Egypt, where she was revered by local shopkeepers and international Egyptologists. On the occasion of her 80th birthday party, I rented a camel.”

THE RESCUERS: Joshua Levine’s “Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture” is No. 2 in its fourth week on the paperback nonfiction list. Levine, a Londoner who wrote an earlier oral history about the British military’s World War II evacuation of Dunkirk, served as the official historian for Christopher Nolan’s current film about that event, and his book offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the movie as well as providing further historical context. “If the British army had been destroyed or captured at Dunkirk, Britain would almost certainly have been forced to make peace with Hitler and the country would have become … a slave state,” Levine told The New York Post last month. “I certainly…

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