I learned something terrible and sad today: One of my favorite historical fiction authors, the too-little known Judith Merkle Riley, died nearly two weeks ago. I’ve never thought she got the attention she deserved (not in the US, at least; I know her last novel was in print overseas when it was impossible to find here), even in these halcyon days when we’re glutted with historical fiction, both good and wretched. Riley always stood out for her dry, often absurd humor and the flights of fancy her novels often took: “If all the chronicles of earthly life were recorded with such drama, flair and wit, the world would be filled with history majors,” Betty Lukas wrote in her 1989 Times review of “A Vision of Light,” Riley’s first novel. That about says it.
I found The Oracle Glass in the library in tenth grade, and went looking for it again after I moved to the Mainland a year later. It took me years to painstakingly build my collection of her novels, but I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them (perhaps the later Margaret of Ashburys a bit less, but still). I kind of wish I’d written a fan letter to her, just so she’d know how very much I liked her books. And I ended up a History major, too.
As an homage, I think I’ll read a few of her books this week. Resquiat in pace, Judith.