From Frederick's Michaels, another good one

Monday Book Reviews

January 10, 1994|By Chris Schauble

HOUSES OF STONE. By Barbara Michaels. Simon & Schuster. 368 pages. $20. IMAGINE presenting a publisher with a book proposal which combines Gothic romance with a history of the novel with a who-done-it mystery with a feminist cause?

The publisher would probably think the starving writer needed some brain food.

Yet, "Houses of Stone" is just such a book. And under the skillful hands of a prolific Frederick writer who goes by the nom de plume Barbara Michaels, the themes flow smoothly together into a sometimes funny, sometimes romantic and sometimes chilly page-turner.

Michaels has authored six consecutive New York Times mass-market best-sellers since 1988, and her fans anxiously await each new book. But even more remarkably, this same author writes traditional mysteries under yet another pen name, Elizabeth Peters, published by Warner Books.

In real life, Barbara Michaels, a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters, is Barbara Mertz, whose personal credentials sound just as unlikely as the plot of her latest book.

She holds a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and has written two nonfiction books about ancient Egypt under her own name. She is also current president of the American Crime Writers' League.

In "Houses of Stone," the heroine is Dr. Karen Holloway, an average-looking young English professor specializing in 19th century women's literature. She enjoys a certain notoriety in her highly competitive field, stemming from the discovery of an unknown poet who called herself Ismene. American women writers in the early 1800s were rare, and novels had just become a literary form.

As the novel begins, a long-time friend and rare book dealer shows Karen a battered and partially burned manuscript he has just acquired. Apparently it's a novel by Karen's discovered author, Ismene.

The dealer's intention is to put the manuscript up for bids to all of Karen's competitors. Thus the chase begins. Can Karen come up with enough money to beat them out and thus enhance her original find?

Her first stroke of luck mildly tempers her independent streak. She agrees to a partnership with a colleague, Margaret Finneyfrock, an American history professor. Ms. Michaels' description of Peggy, as she is called, is marvelous.

"Her crop of short gray curls looked as if it had been trimmed with garden shears, her weathered face was devoid of makeup, her stocky frame was clad in one of her legendary tweed suits. Her students claimed that when she bought a new one she weighted the pockets with stones and left it hanging in her

closet until it had been suitably aged before putting it on."

But, as Karen finds out, Peggy's income is not limited to that of a rumpled professor. Peggy writes bodice-ripping romance novels on the side. She becomes Karen's financial backer and friend as the plot unfolds.

As Karen painstakingly transcribes the cryptic handwritten pages, the search takes them from Western Maryland to Virginia's Tidewater, the site of a sprawling and unsightly 18th century mansion called Amberley, complete with cold spots in the attic and unearthly screams.

When Karen discovers descriptions in the manuscript which seem to match the house, she is sure she's on her way to uncovering Ismene's real identity. The Gothic manuscript seems reveal autobiographical information. Her professional future depends on being the first to publish the latest finds about Ismene.

But hot on her heels is male chauvinist Bill Meyer, her Yale JTC nemesis, and belligerent Dorothea Angelo from Berkeley, "almost feet tall and proportionately broad." She also meets repeatedly with the heirs of the property, cold Cameron Hayes and his aristocrat cousin.

Could it be that someone is trying to kill her and steal the manuscript? She feels a need to trust someone besides Peggy, but whom?

While the plot may sound thin and jumbled, Ms. Michaels' characters are human and the scenes realistic. Karen's obsession with Ismene as a woman whose voice was never quite silenced, despite the disparaging of female writers in her era, is also fascinating.

This is a fun book to escape into. And it's not likely you'll guess the ending.

Chris Schauble is a Baltimore writer.

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