Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, introducing a fellow mystery writer with an interesting story to tell. I first met Sarah Wisseman several years ago, but we reconnected at Malice Domestic this past spring. Sarah was responsible for bringing an excellent session on forensic anthropology to the program–the mystery of the boy in the iron coffin. It was a fascinating look at the way DNA, facial reconstruction and other forensic methods, together with basic genealogical research, combined to identify remains found during an excavation. In her novels, Sarah calls on her own background as an archaeologist to create fascinating characters and compelling plots. Here is the story of how she came to write her latest novel, Burnt Siena.
How to Research a Murder
Most writers agree it helps to know your setting by visiting in person, not just by googling it or looking at maps and pictures. I did both for my newest mystery, Burnt Siena, recently released from Five Star/ Cengage Learning. I visited the magical city of Siena, Italy, for the first time in 1975, and returned for a conference in 2008. The last time, I took pictures—not just tourist pictures—but snaps of cafés and apartment buildings, flower shops and food displays, where I might want to set my characters.
I walked the streets, stretched out on the paving stones of the Piazza del Campo on a warm Sunday afternoon, ate pasta with cream sauce and mushrooms. But it was the repurposed convent where I stayed, and the unexpected “Ospedale Psichiatrico,” a former insane asylum where our conference was held, that convinced me Siena was perfect for my story.
A key part of my plot was inspired by the controversy over the purchase of a Greek statue for nine million dollars by the J. Paul Getty Museum in California almost thirty years ago. Believing the statue was an unusually well-preserved, ancient but original work of art, the Getty put it on display. Then a similar statue, an obvious forgery, turned up and the fight was on. Despite numerous scientific tests, art historians and curators could not agree whether the Getty statue was truly ancient, or one of the best modern forgeries ever produced. Writing Burnt Siena compelled me to review Greek sculpture styles (can an original statue combine the hair style of one period and the carved feet from another?), marble patinas (can a false patina be complex enough imitate the crust of ages and to fool modern scientists?), and the constant tug-of-war between stealing antiquities from their excavations and forging them. Both illegal practices feed each other because antiquities, both originals and clever forgeries, can fetch such high prices in the art market.
My love of Siena and my fascination with art forgery and antiquities smuggling drove me to invent a young art conservator, Flora Garibaldi, who is fresh out of advanced training and beginning a new job working for Restauro Lorenzetti, a respected firm of art conservators in Siena. But after her colleague and roommate Ernst Mann is found dead in the street below their apartment balcony, Flora’s dream job turns sour. The Italian police, after ruling Flora innocent of murder, persuade her to spy on her employers. Flora is trapped between the competing demands of the Lorenzettis: genial Beppe, sulky Pietro, and hunky and amorous Marco. Flora thinks Marco is being used by his family to divert police attention and generate income by replicating Greek sculpture. Will Marco’s statue be sold as a legitimate, museum-grade copy, or as a Greek “masterpiece?” Flora’s emotional turmoil grows as she works to protect Marco, avenge Ernst, and fight her growing attraction to policeman Vittorio Bernini.
The sequel to Burnt Siena will be set in Rome, where Flora and Bernini work with the Carabinieri’s Art Squad to investigate a rumor about Nazi-looted art stashed somewhere in the catacombs under the city.
Sarah Wisseman, a retired archaeologist at the University of Illinois, is the author of four Lisa Donahue Archaeological Mysteries set in Boston (Bound for Eternity and The Fall of Augustus) and the Middle East (The Dead Sea Codex and The House of the Sphinx) and one stand-alone historical mystery (The Bootlegger’s Nephew) set in Prohibition-era Illinois. Visit her at sarahwisseman.com