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.