For want to do, Remy grabbed one of the dated newspapers. The torn sheet featured rural crime stories. One detailed the increasing loss of farm equipment. Farmers demanded police support to stop outbuilding raids by gangs, their stolen machinery popping up on internet auction sales. The next entry recounted the theft of hand-carved panels from a remote Scottish kirk. Remy sighed. Her mother had spoken of looting from archeological digs. Cultural legacies disappearing overnight. Ruins smashed for architectural pieces. Yes, the bucolic countryside was tarnished with illegal activities. The last article reported on the theft of centuries-old manuscripts from Italian libraries. Multiple librarians were caught in the smuggling chain. Priceless tomes, she mused, cultural treasures stolen by curators—an enemy from within. Interpol was searching for a buyer dubbed “The Astronomer” who collected 15th and 16th century books written by the founders of astronomy. Disgusted by the selfish greed, she tossed aside the print.
- Excerpt from The Stars Prevail
That, in a nutshell, is what prompted my mystery, The Stars Prevail. I’ve always been fascinated by art fraud and theft from museums, private collections, and galleries. Any time an article reports another theft, I ponder the crime, the planning involved, the timing required, and the ultimate buyer. The intrigue is gripping.
Of course, I grew up with the foolish vision of a suave, erudite cat burglar as portrayed by Cary Grant in the 1955 film To Catch a Thief. The truth of art theft is far from that romantic notion. Over time I learned that, in most cases, an opportunistic thief will simply seize a piece of valuable art and make a mad dash away without any preset connections to a buyer or a viable plan to sell the piece. When thieves realize they cannot sell the known art on the open market, they either try to ransom it, turn to the black market, or destroy the evidence. (By the way, black market buyers sometimes kill the perpetrators, so yeah—crime doesn’t pay.) For a superb read on the topic, I suggest The Art Thief by Noah Charney or listen to this brilliant man in his fascinating TedTalks dialog about art fraud and theft.
My curiosity was further catapulted when I stumbled across a news article about a library director stealing original manuscripts from the Girolamini Library (Naples, Italy) and selling the ancient tomes through the underground economy. Until that moment, I had never considered books as a form of collectable art. A short while later, I read of Scotland Yard’s hunt for The Astronomer—yes, that black market buyer really does exist. I knew there had to be a great story caught between those two articles. A few days later, I opened my laptop and began writing the first book in the Remy Lane Mystery series.
The theft of antiquarian books from libraries for black-market sale is a crime which prompted murder in my first two novels. The idea was launched by a few articles I had read about Marino Massimo De Caro, the former director of the Girolamini Library (Italy) who was accused of stealing thousands of rare books, including 15th and 16th century tomes penned by the founders of astronomy. Turns out that theft from libraries—a cultural heritage crime—is all too common.
A library’s rare books, illustrations, and maps are most often snatched for profit, feeding the growing black market for cultural relics. The greatest problem is that while most curated items are one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable historical gems, there are limited protections in place. Few libraries have funds for high-end security systems, relying instead upon manual checkouts, turnstiles, and—most recently—electronic tag detectors. How do you guard a collection that can be browsed by anybody? Once upon a time, books were chained to the wall. With the production of more books, chains became unmanageable. In the Middle Ages, the weapon of choice against potential book thieves was a curse. Such harm-filled magical spells included the threat of being struck by palsy, suffering eternal damnation, or—my favorite—having all your members blasted. Ouch!
Who are the most common library book thieves? Employees. Insider theft happens regularly because it takes little planning beyond the common sense of not taking what is highly popular. Unpopular items are rarely missed or reported. Janitors might tuck a book into their mop buckets, but only a librarian can remove the card catalog record, a trail documenting an item's existence. The whistle might still be blown, of course, if the item has been used by a researcher, creating another trail when used in citations. Honest book buyers and vested librarians often spot and report stolen items appearing at auction or in online sales. This is how De Caro was finally tripped up in Italy.
Punishment for the theft and sale of such cultural antiquities is a whole other issue. In 2013, Massimo De Caro was convicted and given a seven-year sentence for embezzlement. He was in prison for only six months and then allowed to serve the remainder of his sentence at his own home. Although his assets were seized and visitation heavily restricted, I’ve read that he dwells in “confined splendor,” awaiting subsequent trials and appeals for looting, conspiracy, and forgery while enjoying the view from his villa. It's no wonder cultural heritage crimes flourish in the modern era.
Craig Braitten? No. Craig Fletcher? No. Craig Merlo? Yes!
I seem to have fallen upon some already used names when creating a more recent character—the ginger-haired police constable in The Nighthawk’s Nemesis. I finally landed on Craig Merlo because I discovered that “Merlo” is an Italian/Spanish reference to “blackbird.” That feels all too appropriate, as this novel itself hovers around birds and birdwatchers.
Each new book tosses me into endless research. I love it, of course. All that fresh knowledge at my fingertips, widening my view of the world. Upon finishing The Nighthawk’s Nemesis, I wrapped up my studies of ornithology, taxidermy, oology, birder’s slang, and migration patterns along England’s coast. All of that invariably led to further research on the impacts of global warming upon birds, bugs, fish, and fishermen. It is a bleak picture, and no solution has been readily embraced by mankind. Yet people think blackbirds are foolish and gullible?
Unable to leave on a sad note, I remind you all that a group of owls is called a 'parliament', a group of larks is an 'exaltation', and a group of blackbirds…a 'murder'. Merlo. How terribly appropriate.
A splash of milk swirled in Tremaine’s coffee. The dairy billowed, folded in on itself, and bled across the steaming surface. It was like the unpredictable dreams that plundered his sleep. Dozing off while reading, books had haunted him last night. Leathery tomes had leapt off a high shelf, pages fluttering open like gannet wings, carrying away words as he snatched at them, desperate to capture their knowledge. Tremaine rubbed his groggy eyes. Slurped coffee. His granny had loved the drivel of dreams; a Scotswoman who believed in second sight. Portents, she’d eerily claim, spouting dire warnings. She’d tried to fill his head with her fey rubbish. It had frightened him as a lad. Guzzling caffeine, he read Carlisle’s nightly crime report: thirteen drunk and disorderlies, five assaults, three criminal damages, two burglaries. The Inspector set aside the sheet, drained his mug. His spooky gran was wrong. There were no predictions or prophesies to be found in sleep. It was just nonsense cluttering his brain, leaving him exhausted. He hated ambiguous dreams. Life was cut-and-dried, made brittle by people’s foolish acts.
-- Excerpt from The Stars Prevail
Did you know (Remy’s favorite phrase) that there are three kinds of twilight? Civil. Nautical. Astronomical. This kind of minutia drives some people insane, but if you are a writer it’s your passion. So much of what we write stems from solid research. Hours spent chasing after fine details; Alice diving down that grubby rabbit hole.
Details make or break the plot. Specific words paint the picture. In my first novel, I wrote, “Twilight plummeted into the yawning sea.” Was that civil twilight? Nautical twilight? No, it had to be astronomical twilight since we are using a telescope in that specific scene.
Do readers really care? Hell, yes! Heck, no! It depends on the reader. We can’t please everyone! Still, I find it all so very fascinating as I strive to get my scenes set perfectly in place.
For those who really must know: Civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight all refer to the number of degrees that the sun is below the horizon. Good old dusk occurs at the very end of astronomical twilight, but if you look closer, there is also a civil dusk, a nautical dusk, and an astronomical dusk. The same is true for our lovely dawn. Splitting hairs will drive readers up a wall, disrupt pacing, and bog down the storyline...so I’ll just stick with “Twilight plummeted into the yawning sea” until I get some formal complaints.
Oology. I love the sound of that word. It slides across my tongue like luscious, cool yogurt. Oology–the study of nests and eggs–also refers to the hobby of collecting wild bird eggs. That sounds like a bizarre hobby (right up there with 'beetle fighting'), but before powerful binoculars were developed, egg collecting was a significant source of scientific data.
In the U.K., collecting of this sort is now illegal, as the hobby has lead to the endangerment and extinction of certain bird species. If you want to keep a clutch of wild bird eggs, you better have proof that they were gathered before 1954 and never intend to sell your collection. Heck, even museums don’t want them! Oology activity is also restricted heavily Stateside–considered a criminal act, in some cases. We can only hope other nations follow suit.
Imagine spending your Christmas holiday on a canal boat, floating every so slowly on waterways across the U.K. Fairy lights strung across deck. Swans paddling by. It sounds perfect to me!
Wanting to place one of my novel’s characters on a canal boat led to research about these tranquil vessels that have stood the test of time. Buoyant narrowboats originally served as a transport chain, delivering cargo from coastal ports to retailers across the U.K. Many were drawn along the shallow channels by horses strolling the towpath. Then came steam and diesel engines, putting the mellow beasts out to pasture. You can glimpse a lovely horse named Bilbo Baggins still carrying on the canal boat towpath tradition in the video below:
An extensive railway network eventually led canal boats to a new use: residential digs and holiday lettings. When housing prices peaked, people willingly settled into a spartan lifestyle on the seven-foot wide boats, permanently docked in urban-based canals. Leisure cruising can also be had on these colorful boats, bobbing along the waterways through a series of self-run locks, swing bridges, and low tunnels. Leisure narrowboats offer all the modern amenities while tugging nostalgically on our heartstrings, beckoning us to a slower-paced holiday. While I continue on my own journey to a minimalist lifestyle, I wonder if I could find serenity on a tiny, brightly-painted narrowboat. I’m more than willing to give it a try on my next visit abroad!
This blog is where I post my inspirations for each book in the Barrington Bay series as well as behind-the-scenes tips, pics, and other tidbits. Feel free to click 'Read More' for in-depth posts.