Saturday, November 14, 2009


I grew up in a house full of readers where everyone’s favorite pastime was to gather around the fireplace and read, talk about books, or read aloud from books such as The Hound of the Baskervilles. Gradually I became aware that some of my parents’ favorite books were mysteries, but I didn’t really understand why until I started to write one.

Traditional mysteries are layered puzzles, like archaeological digs. The best ones are rich in character and setting, hard to put down but satisfying to finish because (usually) evil is contained and chaos is tamed. Such stories offer a welcome respite from daily life, where bad guys thrive and events and personalities are usually messier and more complicated than in fiction.

I like layers and puzzles—that’s not surprising, since I am an archaeologist at the University of Illinois in my “day job.” Although I no longer shovel much dirt myself, I spend many hours reconstructing the history of excavated objects with incomplete information, much like a detective trying to ferret out clues when suspects refuse to talk.

My heroine, Lisa Donahue, is an archaeologist and museum curator with a background suspiciously like my own. She works in a Boston museum that resembles a dusty labyrinth and deals with layered complications in her job—difficult bosses, jealous colleagues—and in her personal life—a troubled stepson and an overworked, oblivious husband.

In my most recent mystery, The Fall of Augustus ( October 2009), Lisa’s museum loses two directors in quick succession in the middle of a nightmarish move to a new building. The first director is crushed by a falling statue and the second turns up as a mummy The plot layers include the machinations of a vicious woman—the sort of villain we all love to hate—the theft of valuable Celtic artifacts, and the rocky relationship between Lisa’s best friend, Ellen, and their oversexed colleague, Dylan.

Hopefully, as the reader “digs” into my mystery, she will enjoy excavating layered personalities as well as occasional esoteric facts about Greek vases and Egyptian mummification. The tricky part for me was embedding those facts deep into the plot so they become essential clues to the murders, like Roman coins found six feet under that help an archaeologist date an entire civilization.

If I’ve done my job as a writer, I’ve created something like an excavation-in-a-box for public schools: a rich micro-environment full of clues and quandaries—easy enough to reconstruct, complex enough to serve as a setting for future stories.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fall of Augustus is here!

The book is published and available directly from the publisher as either a trade paperback or an ebook.

This is the second book set in a creepy fourth floor attic museum (very similar to one where I used to work) right in the middle of a move to a new building. Lisa becomes Director of the museum after a falling statue crushes her boss, Victor Fitzgerald. Suddenly she's juggling demands from architects and deans while trying to mount an exhibit, find a murderer, and figure out why her stepson hates school.

The story is loosely based upon the move of an actual museum at the University of Illinois from a fourth floor attic in an old classroom building to a modern facility. The move required lowering heavy plaster casts of Roman and Greek statues down the old elevator shaft. Although I was not present during this interesting exercise, I imagined what might have happened...

As always, it is great fun to borrow from my profession, which is archaeology and museology, and to create characters who remind me of colleagues past and present.

The museum and all of its inhabitants have been moved to my old hometown of Boston to protect the innocent.

Monday, August 17, 2009

New book coming in October!

I am thrilled that my next mystery, "The Fall of Augustus," will be published in October. Technically, this will be book four in my series, but the publication schedule is ahead of book 3, "The House of the Sphinx."

In this novel, my character, Lisa Donahue, tangles with two different museum directors:

When someone kills Lisa Donahue’s boss by dropping a Roman statue on him, she becomes Interim Director of her Boston University museum.

Suddenly she’s juggling murder, artifact theft, and a complicated move into a new building. Then the treacherous Dean announces her replacement: a vicious woman from Lisa’s past…

It is partly based on my own museum experience, but of course all the characters are fictional! The title was inspired by the fact that the staff of our local museum really did have to lower a huge plaster cast down and elevator shaft--actually several plaster casts--in order to move them into a new museum building.

To see the cover, go to

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Many Feet and Many Layers

In some parts of the world, it’s easy to imagine you can hear the padding of many feet in an old alleyway or sense the layers of history all around.

Istanbul is such a place. My husband and I were just there as part of a springtime tour of the Greek islands and the coast of Turkey.

It was tulip time. Our guide told us that the Dutch, if pressed, will admit that tulips came from Turkey instead of Holland. Tulips of red, pink, purple, black, and every other color swarm all over prehistoric, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman remains and buildings. Visitors arriving by cruise ship are still greeted by the awesome skyline with the spires of the Blue Mosque, the dome of Haghia Sophia, and the walls and gardens of Topkapi Palace. The seventeenth-century mosque and the sixth century Byzantine church face each other over gardens that contain remains of a Roman chariot-racing stadium, ca. 200 AD.

In the Grand Bazaar, the art of fleecing tourists is almost as old as some of the carpets, and the two wool pillowcases we purchased still smell like sheep. The multiple alleys and gateways invite you to lose yourself in a fantastic jumble of old and new stuff from carpets, pillowcases, wool and silk pashmini, saffron—both the real stuff and colored sawdust—Turkish delight, real gold and junk jewelry, and blue-and-white glass evil eyes.

Then we sailed to Rhodes. Obsessed with archaeology and dreaming of the Colossus, I didn’t realize I was about to visit the best-preserved medieval city in the world. The fabulous quarter of the Knights of St. John, with its multiple stories, cobbled streets, and cannonballs lying around in courtyards and alleys, lacks only the knights and horses to bring it all back to life.

Next, Ephesos—even better than Pompeii. Bright with flowers and a dramatic view of the ancient port, this Greek city still has paved streets, and enormous theater, and almost three stories of its library preserved. It also boasts an ancient latrine with communal seating and a secret entrance between library and brothel (“I’m off to study Plato for a few hours, dear…”).

Of all the islands, Santorini was my favorite for its stunning combination of geology and architecture. We sailed into the caldera, created when the volcano blew up in ca. 1650 B.C., staring up at beautifully clear layers of pumice and magma that look like they were laid down yesterday. White houses with blue roofs perch on the spine of the caldera, cascading down in multiple levels over the steep slopes. We found out just how steep when, having finished our explorations, we took surly donkeys on a white-knuckled ride down the volcano.

I’m jetlagged and my sinuses are clogged, but I am content: I’ve walked ancient streets with prophets and kings and seen legendary Atlantis with my own eyes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Artifact, Relic, or Hoax?

This semester, I am having a wonderful time teaching retirees at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Champaign, IL. The course is called "Artifact, Relic, or Hoax: Case studies in Archaeological Science." I have 55 students, from university, business, industry, and educational settings and they ask lots of questions--including many I cannot answer right away.

We've considered topics such as the Shroud of Turin (the history, religion, and science behind the Shroud and its many websites), and the case of the J. Paul Getty Museum kouros (a Greek statue that is either an outstanding fake or an unusual original sculpture from the 6th century B.C.) and the University of Illinois' Egyptian mummy project.

Students continue to send me web links on interesting topics related to the course: residue analysis of pottery from Chaco Canyon (the first evidence of drinking chocolate north of Mexico, mysterious ruins under Lake Michigan, and a recent CT scan of a mummy at the Oriental Institute. Check out the links here: