Thursday, July 1, 2010

Archaeology Can Be Murder

By day, I’m an archaeologist at the University of Illinois. At night and on weekends, I morph into a mystery writer. My series is the Lisa Donahue Archaeological Mysteries, and my protagonist is a lot like me. She’s a museum curator trained in Classical and Near Eastern archaeology, she spent a junior year in Israel, and she has a daughter, a cat, and a medical husband (not necessarily in that order!).

So how does one go from archaeology to murder? I grew up in a household full of moldering old paperback mysteries (mostly Golden Age British novels), and my parents liked to read aloud to us from Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and the like. Then I got a job in a dusty old attic museum where broken windows allowed pigeons to fly in and out and leave their deposits on Greek statues and suits of armor. While working on an interdisciplinary mummy project, I realized that my workplace was the perfect setting for murder.

Thus my first novel, “Bound for Eternity,” was born. In this story, Lisa discovers that an Egyptian mummy holds the secrets to two murders in her Boston Museum. (My old museum was moved from Illinois to Boston to protect the innocent). The prequel, “The Dead Sea Codex,” allowed Lisa to revisit Israel, hook up with an old boyfriend, and crisscross the desert looking for an ancient manuscript before Christian fanatics destroy it. Book 3 in the series, “The Fall of Augustus,” takes Lisa back to her museum at a time when the staff is supposed to move enormous plaster statues of Roman emperors and Greek gods down through an old elevator shaft. Sounds dangerous, right? Some of my colleagues actually did this at Illinois without misadventure, but naturally I changed the facts in my mystery so I could have the vicarious thrill of killing off two museum directors.

Book 4, “The House of the Sphinx,” takes a new direction. Lisa and her radiologist husband, James, take a delayed honeymoon in Egypt, where they stumble upon a plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox. I like to say that this plot (instead of another archaeological caper) is my husband’s fault, and that he’s a ghoul. Actually, Charlie’s a retired pathologist, and a great source of information on all things medical. He used to work for the Centers for Disease Control, and pointed me to their website. There I found a public, fully detailed plan for dealing with a modern smallpox epidemic. Scary stuff. While I Googled bioweapons and tried to figure out how to weaponize smallpox virus, the thought did cross my mind that someone out there might be watching my Internet use…fortunately, no one showed up on my doorstep.

I see many similarities between mystery writing and my “day job.” Archaeology is like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing; constructing a mystery is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, but all the pieces must be there and should fit at the end. Archaeologists deal with layers (stratigraphy), with the stuff on top being the most recent and the stuff deep down being the oldest. Similarly, the visible story in a mystery is the top layer (what the writer wants you to see), and the deeper layers hold the motives, the clues, and the detailed plot that is gradually revealed. If you want to see how far this analogy can go, check out the wonderful free ezine, Mysterical-E, and the article I wrote for them.

For more on my mysteries, visit

Happy digging!

Sarah Wisseman


  1. Sarah, this series sounds so great! I love the comparison you made between the jigsaw puzzles of archeology and mystery solving. I'm heading to the bookstore now with my son and will be looking for your books!

  2. Do you know Dana Cameron, Sarah??? I'll bet you two could have some cool conversations! I always wanted to be an archaeologist, digging into the past. I'm dying to see the new King Tut exhibit in NYC (saw the old exhibit in New Orleans a long time ago). Good luck with your mysteries and thanks for stopping by today. :-)