A few months ago, I premiered my sixth book, Hart of Madness. With several book signings under my belt and a successful marketing program under way, I am ready to take on the next project. But, I can’t decide on the topic for my next book.
You might think that writers have a hundred ideas for stories waiting to jump onto the page. My books are rather specialized, however. I need a tragic event or time period to use as a backdrop. The place where a mystery unfolds. Such as the Triangle Factory fire in 1911, New York City, or the Salem Witch trials, in 1692, Massachusetts.
I also need a modern story line, where science or technology can resolve the historic mystery. Digital photography and facial recognition as in the Civil War photographs, document analysis, as in the witch trials, DNA, fiber, ballistics or fire forensics to name a few areas of specialty in crime investigations.
And, most important, I need a mystery to get me jazzed about doing the research required to make a fictional account as authentic as possible. The further back in time I go, the more difficult it is to make the modern story work.
Here are a few ideas I’ve bandied about:
- 1492 The Spanish Inquisition and a lost pendant of Queen Isabella, which turns up mysteriously today in a box of jewelry discovered by a Jewish descendant of the Inquisition.
- 1587 The lost colony of Roanoke, an island off North Carolina. What happened to the missing English men, women and children that settled this colony before Jamestown?
- 1917 The disaster in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, one loaded with munitions. The tragedy killed more than 2,000 people, many school children.
- 1942 World War II A Jewish musician is condemned to a concentration camp and his music is stolen by German musician. In modern times, can the music be attributed to the real composer?
I’d love to get your feedback on these ideas or any others you think might fit my book concept of historical mysteries solved by modern technology. Many thanks.
When I wrote The Triangle Murders, I researched the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC, in 1911, and blogged about it in past posts. I fictionalized a murder set against the backdrop of the actual fire and detailed the forensic analysis of the fire after the fact. I also blogged about heroines like Clara Lemlich and Frances Perkins who helped raise awareness of the deplorable conditions the garment workers found themselves in every day, as well as the changes Clara and Frances helped institute to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.
Reading stories from several years ago of fires at garment factories, first in Bangladesh, India, then in Karachi, Pakistan, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/world/asia/pakistan-factory-fire-shows-flaws-in-monitoring.html?pagewanted=all, you’ll notice the lamentable similarities to the Triangle fire in this country.
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But first, back up to Saturday, March 25, 1911, and a few grim facts: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory occupied the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building on the northwest corner of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. On the eighth floor, fire broke out in a scrap bin. Perhaps someone tossed a match or cigarette butt into the bin. Soon flames leaped out and caught other fabrics. About 180 people worked on this floor. They rushed for the exit doors, which were locked to prevent the workers from stealing, and the fire escape. Many were trapped.
For various reasons, the workers on the ninth floor of the Asch building could not be contacted. It was estimated that 250 workers were on the floor that day. For an exquisitely poignant description of the events, you must read ‘Triangle-The Fire That Changed America” by David Von Drehle. https://www.amazon.com/Triangle-Fire-That-Changed-America-ebook/dp/B004RPY48I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1533148223&sr=8-1&keywords=the+fire+that+changed+america
Many of the workers were women and young girls, trapped by locked exit doors and only one poorly designed fire escape. Fire hoses reached only to the sixth floor, safety nets were unable to break the falls. To avoid suffocating or burning to death, the girls jumped nine stories to the pavement and their death. 146 of them.
“My building is fireproof,” Joseph J. Asch insisted. You might recall that the White Star Line directors made similar proclamations about the Titanic.
Fast forward to recent times. On September 11, 2012 in Karachi, Pakistan, close to 300 people, many of them women and children, died in a factory fire, trapped behind locked doors and barred windows. “There were no safety measures taken in the building design,” said a senior police official. “There was no emergency exit. These people were trapped.”
A few months later, another tragedy occurred. Over 112 people, possibly seventy percent women, died in a fire at a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh. Why? Bangladesh’s garment industry, second only to China, has a notoriously poor fire safety record. Most of the workers killed were on the first and second floors and died because there were not enough exits. One survivor on the fifth floor said he escaped by climbing out of a third floor window onto bamboo scaffolding used for construction workers.
Yikes. What am I missing here? With today’s lightning-fast communications, surely most industrial nations got the message about safety in the workplace. Right? Why must we wait for a disaster to occur before we decide to act?
There must be a more effective way to learn from history, to take those lessons and apply them today. History is not just hard facts that inform us about our past. History is the measure of our past deeds, good and bad. If we don’t take those lessons seriously, as a human race, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes
We can do better. We must do better.
A few years ago, my third book, Deadly Provenance, was published. I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island. Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.
The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin. First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks. Next, what happened to all that displaced art? How much was recovered and how? How much is still missing? Then there’s my world — the museum world. How have museums been involved? Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?
Then there are the players. An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork. She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was. Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire. Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers. Did he ever forge a van Gogh? In my book he did.
There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later. Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph. Can it be done? Has it ever been done? What is the science of art authentication today? How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis? Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.
Hitler in Paris
As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris. The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there. Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.
And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever. “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights. But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting. Which it is.
The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors. When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux. Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground. Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away? Did a soldier steal it? A civilian in the town? Was it burned with the Chateau?
Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft. I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news. Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won. Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.
History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future. I believe they should.
Your thoughts welcome.
My Civil War mystery, Time Exposure, was recently reviewed by Susan Weintrob, who hosts a site called Expand the Table: https://www.expandthetable.net/foodie-lit. In it she blogs about “Foodie Lit,” a genre of novels and memoirs filled with stories and food. Each month she shares the magic of a good foodie lit read and one of its recipes to pair with it.
Cooking and recipes in books takes us into the mind of the characters and brings us into the book’s kitchen to see, smell, and share the lives within.
I wanted to share an excerpt of her Foodie Lit review of Time Exposure.
The Gibbs Museum in Charleston, South Carolina mounted an exhibit of Civil War photographs, which I went to see a few years ago. The black and white photographs were clear and surprisingly modern. There was the heroic; there were also the photographs that were brutal, unnerving and full of war’s agony. There was the view of Robert E. Lee’s home, with Union soldiers on the porch, his property made into the now national cemetery at Arlington.
Lynne Kennedy’s Civil War historical novel, Time Exposure, is seen through the lens of photographers, the first time that civilians are on the war fields to photograph warfare.
Lynne, once a museum director, had attended a workshop on Civil War Photography at her museum. And she told me that she became hooked on the subject. “After much research about Civil War photography, I chose a real CW photographer, Alexander Gardner, who worked under Mathew Brady before he set up his own shop. I also fictionalized a photographer for story purposes: Joseph Thornhill. His descendant, Maggie would, 140 years later, become involved with his mysterious death.”
We see the scenes of war literally through Joseph and his lens. As modern readers, we know more about war details than those in the Civil War era. Yet the descriptions still send chills to us, as we contemplate this deeply divisive war, some divides that last until today.
Joseph to his fiancé, “Fences are down, rails blackened and burnt, orphaned children wander hungry and homeless, begging for food from strangers.”
Photographs were exhibited during the war. Joseph watches the crowds that come to his gallery. “They gaped at the images so powerfully depicting the brutal nature of war. Ladies, dressed in their finest, with parasols folded at their sides gasped at the scenes, covered their eyes from one horror only to come to face with another death scene.”
Lynne said to me, “Photography hugely impacted the way society viewed the war. Through the photographs, the public got up close and personal to the horrid battleground landscapes…that they may otherwise have only imagined.”
Louisa May Alcott enters the novel as a friend of Thornhill’s fiancé. In real life, the beloved author of Little Women volunteered as a nurse in Washington and wrote a series of sketches about her experience.
The author includes scenes of Gettysburg, the most brutal Civil War battle. Thornhill tells his companion photographer, Alex Gardner, “You know Alex? Men get to know each other pretty well in this sort of experience, being confined so closely together. Living together, working together, freezing together for more than a year. Some form bonds that will last a lifetime.”
The author writes eloquently of the mundane and the philosophical. Kennedy has much experience writing in this genre. She draws us into the very fabric of life in another era, allowing us to view events in the Civil War era that so dramatically influenced our country, even to this day.
During the Civil War, a favorite sweet side or dessert was Fried Apples. In the field, it was typically made in a cast iron pan over a fire and worked well with tart apples or ripe, if available. A variety of sweeteners could be used from honey or brown sugar, more available than white at the time.
At the end of each Foodie Lit review the reader is tempted by a recipe that complements the story. For Time Exposure: Buttery Fried Nutmeg Apples. https://www.expandthetable.net/fried-apples
March 25, 2018 will be the 107th anniversary of the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC history prior to 9-11: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. So why was the Triangle different?
One reason was a woman named Clara Lemlich. In my novel, The Triangle Murders, she appears as a feisty young woman who wanted to better the plight of the garment workers. Indeed, she was. In my novel she is beaten by a gang of thugs and rescued by Cormac Mead. Indeed, she was. (In truth, she was beaten but not rescued by Cormac or any other policeman.)
Clara Lemlich, a skilled draper and member of International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Local 25, encouraged interested shirtwaist makers to meet secretly with the union and the Women’s Trade Union League to discuss workers’ needs and the union’s goals. Despite the risks, many went on strike in September, 1909. In an attempt to satisfy some workers, Triangle owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the “Triangle Employees Benevolent Association” a company union, and installed relatives as officers. They also announced that any employee who supported ‘another union’ would be fired. Photographer: unknown, 1909 Photo courtesy the Kheel Center, Cornell University:
Clara worked as a draper at Leiserson’s waist factory. She told stories of how workers were followed to the restroom and hustled back to work, lest they steal precious fabrics. She relayed how workers were persistently shortchanged on their pay and sometimes even charged for the use of materials, such as thread. And, at the day’s end, they lined up a single unlocked door to be searched before they exited.
She had had enough. In 1906, along with several other women, Clara joined the ILGWU, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Together they formed Local 25, to serve female waist makers and dressmakers. (A shirtwaist, by the way, is a blouse – See Clara wearing one in photo.) In many ways, they had to fend for themselves, for men in the unions did not take them seriously.
Clara was instrumental in organizing the female workers from shop to shop to strike for better working conditions. She made a difference. Now 107 years later, women like Clara can still make a difference in reforming injustices.
The transfer of works of art from vanquished to victor is as old as warfare itself.”
. . . Lynn Nicolas, author of Rape of Europa
I open with this quote because it so aptly describes the events that began in the art world long before the outbreak of the second World War. Hitler’s dream of a pure Germanic Empire included works of art and he determinedly set about purging those pieces he considered unsuitable.
“Entartete Kunst,” German for degenerate art
What was unsuitable? Works that were “unfinished” or abstract, that did not depict reality. Vasily Kandinsky. Works by Jews. Camille Pisarro. Works by leftists. George Grosz. Degenerate art they were called and exhibitions of them were set up to show the German people what not to like and admire. Shows like “Entartete Kunst” in Munich in 1937 drew thousands.
Hermann Goering was one of the first in Hitler’s regime to recognize the commercial value of some of these works of art and amassed thousands of works for his own personal collection. His “agent” took Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” purged from a museum in Frankfurt, to sell in Holland. The painting eventually found its way to New York and was sold for $82.5 million.
Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi ideologue, set up the ERR, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, to systematically collect – confiscate or steal, to be more precise – works of art and artifacts from state museums, citizens and Jews, in particular. Millions of pieces.
As the war came to an end, the Allies closed in. With them were a handful of art-specialists called “monument men.” Their job was to locate and salvage these precious works of art from Germany, Italy and France. Every day these officers would find thousands of pieces on the verge of destruction. They saved what they could; still many disappeared through looting.
The fate of thousands of objects is still unknown, even today. One of those precious pieces is the subject of my book, Deadly Provenance. It is Van Gogh’s painting, “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders,” which vanished in 1944. Was it destroyed or is it hidden in someone’s secret art collection? In someone’s garage waiting for a sale, perhaps? Will it ever surface to please the world once more?
Can science and technology assist in authenticating the painting if ever it is found? And if so, will it be restored to its rightful owner? Provenance will tell.