What Lurks Beneath
Remy’s career as a historical movie set designer depended upon details. Minutia matters in period-piece film. An inaccurate costume, a misdated theatrical prop, or a misassigned vintage wallpaper ruined a day’s take at a prohibitive cost to a production company. That attention to detail now served her well. She imagined the island’s cave as a movie set.
Excerpt from The Tide Turns
Eww! Disgusting imagery that creates an emotional lasso cinching you to our victim. You can’t help but feel inconsolable grief for a person who has been nibbled upon by sea beasties.
Having a character killed at sea required me to immerse myself in research on water forensics. It is an unnerving and repulsive read, to say the least. I am not a CSI fan but the need to be accurate when describing my poor victim pushed me forward. I learned the biology of drowning, decomposition in freshwater v. seawater, the effects of cold ocean vs. tropical seas upon a corpse, and the nasty business of putrefaction and scavenging creatures.
I read enough on these topics to write the above passage and later observations made by the coroner before embracing this unbendable lesson: Never be buried at sea.
Out to Sea
They shared grim looks. This was an island nation, surrounded by seas, cross-hatched by rivers, lakes, and estuaries. The inconstant water claimed lives. A handful of residents braved the foul weather when the coroner’s van arrived. They hovered on shore, watching men pull out a stretcher. Everyone was used to the sight of Royal National recovery crafts, yet fearful doubt flooded their hearts whenever a lifeboat appeared. Was it a spouse, a child, or a neighbor? Had they survived? Or had they slipped away beyond the caress of the endless surf?
Excerpt from The Tide Turns
Living smack-dab in the middle of a massive country, I was oblivious to the profound presence of water in an island nation. Driving across the UK, I found myself waterlogged by estuaries, trout-filled streams, calm canals, squidgy beaches, and the surrounding restless seas. Wherever there is water, there is the danger of drowning. My research took me to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a volunteer network of forty thousand courageous souls who jump in lifeboats at a moment's notice, saving countless lives and educating generations about water safety. The RNLI rescues twenty-two people every day. As they say, "ordinary people doing extraordinary things." The cost of their brave service has been the loss of more than six hundred volunteer lives since the institution's inception in 1824. Its long-standing commitment to water safety is stunning and worthy of our applause. Grab your tissues and read some of the witty, wry, and wise personal accounts of Royal Nationals from their online magazine.
What's in a Name?
Barrington Bay has such lovely alliteration, doesn’t it? The name is a tribute to the fine composer Barrington Pheloung who crafted music for the tightly written and beautifully photographed Inspector Morse, Lewis, and Endeavor television series inspired by the works of Colin Dexter. You can listen to the haunting theme from Inspector Morse while viewing some of the noteworthy Oxford spires in this video.
I spent an entire day wandering about Oxford with my daughter. We fell madly in love with the city’s stunning architecture, the intoxicating air of education, and the Bodleian Libraries which house over eleven million printed texts. (No surprise there – I work in education and my daughter is a librarian.) We quickly realized that we could spend the rest of our lives exploring this one city. No wonder Dexter never left the site until his death in 2017 and, even then, he was just able to capture a better view of his beloved home from above. Speaking of leaving things behind…
It had taken him years to realize he had to let the failures of his history rest to build a new life.
Excerpt from The Stars Prevail
Who can’t relate to this statement made by DI Tremaine? The past too often chains us with bitterness, an old anger invariably leading to regret. Laughter helps, but it is ultimately about just letting go. It’s done. Over. Keep your eyes on the possibilities rising before you. Let tomorrow lead you to a happier life. If you freely drift out to sea, you’ll find Barrington Bay.
Gazing at the Stars
Soon enough, the Knockinton Observatory soared before them. Its massive rotunda dominated the campus. Gnarled vines and leering gargoyles lent an old-world aura to the structure. The fantastic beasts posed between arches girdling the tower. Modern observatories reflect a sterile, science-based atmosphere embellished with chrome and glass to enthrall visitors with a glimpse of the future. The Knockinton clung to its origins, giving visitors historical respect for the development of astronomy over time.
- Excerpt from The Stars Prevail
The 1897 Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin (US) served as my inspiration for this scene. I toured the site of this great refractor telescope repeatedly while writing The Stars Prevail. The interior of the structure with its ninety-foot diameter dome and movable wood floor is breathtaking. While there, I picked up a reproduction postcard featuring a 1921 photo of the Yerkes’ telescope fronted by a group of staff and—could it be?—theoretical physicist Albert Einstein. The site was also frequented by Edwin Hubble and Carl Sagan. If you’re an amateur astronomer, your jaw is dropping right about now.
It broke my heart when the observatory closed but it is now undergoing extensive restoration to benefit future generations. You can capture an old-school tour of the site in this dated yet delightful presentation.
The original BBC1 series The Sky at Night (narrated by astronomer and broadcaster Sir Patrick Moore for over 50 years) featured the Yerkes Observatory in the mid-80s, but hey—our universe is timeless.
Art & The Astronomer
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.
It's All in a Name
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.
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.