News: RIP Judith Merkle Riley

September 25, 2010 at 1:07 am (Current Events) ()

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.

Full LA Times obituary.



  1. Nancy Wolff (@TygerBurnBright) said,

    I just found out today – over a year later. I have looked her up every so often in hopes of finding she might have written a 7th book of historical fiction. Hers was a rare and delightful gift — I have never read an author where wit and wisdom married so congenially. Plus a cracking good storyteller. I am saddened, but grateful that I do have all her precious books, which have been re-read many times. She is one of the very short list of my favourite authors.

  2. Callista Aguilar said,

    So sad to hear that she passed. I do not think there will ever be another writer like her. He wrote with such wit, and humor. Her female characters thought like real women. I found her books by blissful accident and read them almost every year. She was a hidden treasure. I am glad to see that others have discovered her! I am glad for what she wrote and left us, but I selfishly mourn the loss, I always hoped she would write another delightful novel.

  3. Paula LH said,

    I actually did write her a note back in 2005, and she wrote back. At the time she replied that The Water Devil would be coming out soon, as indeed it did. She also said that she had nearly completed another new novel that she expected to publish at some time. That 7th book has never shown up, and I have always wondered what happened to it. Perhaps her illness intervened and she was not able to complete it. Like you, I enjoyed her books tremendously, andI have watched with hope. In any case, I am grateful for the enjoyment she gave to me and her other readers.

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