Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is Someone Watching Me?

My husband Charlie, a retired pathologist, is a ghoul. On an airplane from Luxor to Cairo, Egypt, I told him I had a new plot for an archaeological mystery, The House of the Sphinx. He listened to my ideas for skullduggery set in the Temple of Luxor and the fabulous site of Karnak. “Fine,” he said. “But what about adding a little bioterrorism?”

This sparked an interesting discussion about which diseases could be used as bioweapons. Instead of reliving our wonderful visit to the Valley of the Kings, I grilled my husband on the symptoms and treatment for smallpox and how Europeans transmitted the disease to Native Americans using contaminated blankets.

Back home, I researched the terrifying saga of smallpox in books, articles, and on the Internet. Because it is a virus that is easy to transmit during the early and unrecognizable stages of the disease, smallpox is difficult to contain and treat. Over thirty percent of people who get sick die, and survivors are often blinded or otherwise disfigured. Officially, smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1979, but the virus stocks in select research facilities were never destroyed...

What if, I asked myself, my archaeologist heroine stumbled upon a plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox? What if there really was a stash of smallpox virus somewhere that terrorists could obtain and weaponize? Not a new idea, I discovered, as I read Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer. Although nonfiction, it read like a thriller, and scared me silly. Preston’s descriptions of smallpox laboratories and frozen virus stashes in the former Soviet Union and Iraq provided me with plenty of fodder for further research, including how to manage a modern smallpox epidemic (I visited the website of the Centers for Disease Control).

Some research can make you paranoid. As I googled how to turn frozen smallpox virus into a stable, disease-transmitting powder, I wondered if other people were tracking my Internet use. Would someone show up on my doorstep to investigate me as a terrorist? Would being a mystery writer be a good enough excuse to get me off the hook? It didn’t happen, but I discovered my own ghoulish tendencies in my fascination with the history of one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

Many writers now say, “write want you want to know,” instead of “write what you know.” I say, use what you know as a jumping off point for new research, no matter how grisly. I’m an archaeologist, not a physician or medical historian, but being married to a doctor has taught me just enough about medicine to be dangerous, to want to learn more. And perhaps I was getting a little tired of killing my villains with priceless Greek vases and Roman statues—it was time for a change.

The House of the Sphinx, by Sarah Wisseman (Hilliard and Harris, December 2009). For more on Wisseman's books and stories, visit
**This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Mystery Scene Magazine.