Friday, February 25, 2011

Archaeology and Murder,

Meet author Sarah Wisseman

Archaeological sites are composed of layers, just like geological strata. In the Middle East, where I worked on my first excavation, people chose the same sites over and over again to build on for two reasons—the availability of water, and defensibility. Thus, walled cities with protected cisterns inside rose on the same “tells” over and over again.

Unlike the layer-cake they are so often compared too, archaeological layers are messy. Instead of being neat, horizontal layers that are easy to interpret, they are disturbed by running water, animal burrowing, tree roots growing, and humans digging garbage pits and foundation trenches.

Mysteries are composed of layers, too. The top layer, or stratum, is what the reader sees and where the main story takes place. A couple of strata down is where the villain hangs out, plotting and planning away, occasionally rising to the surface like a misplaced artifact in an ancient garbage pit.

Personalities are layered as well, and it's the job of writers to reveal the layers in their characters in ways that move the story along. And everyone has a garbage pit--the family traumas from the past, the dysfunctional relationships of the present. Garbage, like compost, can provide rich beginnings for new stories.

Gradually I'm excavating my own life to unearth situations and characters that will make good mysteries. These include creepy old attic museums, digs in Israel, Italy, and Nevada, and peculiar academic characters that morph into murderers (or murderees!).

My latest book, The House of the Sphinx, has at least three layers. Lisa Donahue, archaeologist and museum curator, finally gets to visit Egypt with her physician husband, James. Their standard tour of Egypt, complete with a four-night cruise on the Nile, is the top layer. Underneath is a terrorist plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox at major archaeological sites. And below that is the complicated layer of interactions within the Arab family that aids the terrorists.

I love reading layered mysteries, especially historicals. A recent discovery is Medicus, by Ruth Downie. It’s about an irascible but loveable Roman physician working in Britannia and his slave/housekeeper Tilla who won’t obey orders. A fabulous read!

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