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This is our last week before we’re going to take a break here at Skeleton Keys to enjoy the holidays (and write like crazy). But before we go, we wanted to share a holiday gift with our readers. We’ve got a little teaser for you today—the first three chapters of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, out on February 18, 2015 in hardcover and ebook formats.

If you want to read it in published format like in the book itself, you can find it here as a pdf: TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER  Chapters 1 - 3

For those that prefer to read it on the website, the entire excerpt is below. Enjoy!

And before you go today, be sure to enter the two giveaways at the bottom on this blog post. We're giving away a copy of the brand new paperback edition of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and an advanced reading copy of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. Enter both for your chance to win!

See you back on the blog on January 5th as we begin our run up to the release of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. From both Ann and I, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Forensic Case Files: Richard III’s Unexpected Surprise

We’ve been following the fascinating story of Richard III for over two years. From the discovery of remains in a parking lot suspected to be the long lost king, to the confirmation of the identity of the remains, to the legend of the Princes in the Tower, and to how Shakespeare coloured the way society regarded him, Richard has been a regular visitor to this blog. We thought the story was pretty much complete, but last week a new and surprising detail was announced by the scientists studying Richard III’s DNA: somewhere in his lineage there was an unrecognized illegitimate birth of a ‘royal’ son. Although we’ll likely never know where the break in legitimacy occurs, the implications could impact Britain’s history, right up to the present day.

When the remains were first discovered in Leicester, archeologists were cautiously optimistic that they’d discovered Richard III simply from the physical properties of the remains—the spine of the skeleton showed significant scoliosis and curvature. Shakespeare introduced the image of Richard as a hunchback (‘that foule hunch-backt toade’; Richard III, Act 4, scene iv), but back in Richard’s time, contemporary writings only make note that one of the Richard’s shoulders was higher than the other—a clinical symptom of scoliosis.

The group of scientists from the University of Leicester studying the remains wanted to confirm Richard’s identify in several ways:

  • Archeological: Richard’s remains were suggested to have been buried beneath the quire of Greyfriars Abbey. The abbey was destroyed in the 16th century, but its location was loosely known. The remains were found below where the quire would have been in the 15th century.
  • Osteological: The remains belonged to a man in his late 20s to early 30s, who suffered from scoliosis, showed signed of healed battle wounds, and had died from terrible fresh wounds presumably acquired in battle.
  • Radiological: the remains were dated to have come from 1456 – 1530, bracketing Richard’s death date of August 22, 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The only method left at this point was to identify the remains by DNA, definitively connecting the long-dead monarch to modern living relatives. There were numerous challenges in this process however. First of all, it would be the oldest individual identification ever attempted on remains 527 years old. Also, Richard died with no living offspring, so all connections would have to be made through his sister Anne’s line.

The two types of DNA they wanted to examine were mitochondrial DNA—DNA passed down in near-exact copies through the female line— and the Y chromosome—the male sex chromosome. Two modern relatives, one a 16th cousin twice-removed, and one an 18th cousin twice-removed, were used for comparison. Scientists also analysed the sequences for both hair and eye colour to determine what the individual looked like.

They determined the DNA from the remains would have shown the characteristics of a man with blue eyes and blond hair. Although Richard was always portrayed with blue eyes and brown hair, they proposed that he was blond as a child. As a result of this analysis, they feel the painting that best portrays the monarch is the oldest surviving portrait, displayed at the Society of Antiquaries (see above).

The mitochondrial DNA proved to be an exact match between Richard and the female relative, confirming the same mitochondrial DNA passed to Richard from his mother was also passed to his sister and then down through the intervening generations.

But when they looked at the Y chromosome, an interesting disconnect arose. Due to issues around partial Y chromosome recombination, scientists only considered the retained/non-recombining sections of the chromosome. But even within those segments, a match could not be made between Richard and the male relative. A ‘false paternity’ event had occurred, interrupting the true family line. Three additional modern male relatives were subsequently tested and none of them matched Richard.

Overall, a complete Bayesian analysis of the skeletal DNA sequences report a 99.999% chance that this is indeed Richard III. So scientists are confident without a doubt now that their identification is complete.

But the big question remaining concerns the false paternity event and, more importantly, when it happened. If it happened in the line following Richard III, the royal lines remain unaffected. However, if the line happened before Richard, the royal line as we know it might have been affected. If the illegitimacy goes back to Edward the III and his son John of Gaunt three generations before, then it actually disqualifies Henry IV, V, VI, VII and VIII, and from there the entire Tudor and subsequent lines from the throne. The final supposition of which is that Queen Elizabeth II should not be on the throne and the royal line should instead have gone through Lady Jane Grey.

It is almost a certainty that we’ll never know the truth of where this break in the royal line occurred, and English history will remain as we know it, but it certainly makes for some interesting speculation when you wonder what England would have been like without the powerhouse of the Tudor dynasty. The Tudors were responsible for dynamic changes in world exploration and colonization, they brought about cultural change during the Renaissance, and had a huge impact on world religion when Henry VIII separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church. It makes one wonder how world history might have changed if they had never come to power.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Two Parts Bloody Murder by Jen J. Danna

Two Parts Bloody Murder

by Jen J. Danna

Giveaway ends December 11, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Human Origins in Europe

Human bones can reveal many secrets—information pointing to identity, evidence of trauma or murder, or genetic information about origins. It is this last that we’re going to discuss today.

The common concept of Europe’s origins and the modern people who now inhabit it revolves around the themes of travel, invading armies, conquest, and population mixing. But a recent paper published in the prestigious journal Science suggests that understanding may be incorrect.

In 1954, human remains were found outside the city of Voronezh—in Voronezh Oblast, Russia—at the Kostenki excavation. Excavated by a Russian team, the remains were dated at 37,000 years old, making them some of the oldest skeletons ever found in Europe. The femur of one particular set of remains, a male identified as Kostenki 14, yielded DNA suitable for sequencing. And what researchers found has changed what we know about early man's population of Europe.

Thirty-seven-thousand years ago, humans banded together in hunter-gatherer populations. Agrarian living and the advent of farming that then led to the rise of civilizations didn’t occur until approximately 10,000 – 15,000 years ago. It wasn’t until the development of agriculture produced a surplus of foodstuff for local populations that individuals were able to take on jobs different from farming and hunting. Civilizations were born as positions such as bureaucrats, lawmakers, medical personnel, clergy, and the military were created.

Approximately 74,000 years ago Mount Toba on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra erupted catastrophically in one of the worst volcanic eruptions in earth’s history. The Toba catastrophe hypothesis holds that this caused six to ten years of global volcanic winter and may have triggered an ice age. The severe cooling decimated or completely eradicated many of the earth’s species including man. It is estimated the human population dropped from possibly up to sixty million to a mere several thousand. Evidence of this near extinction exists in our DNA and in the traces of a genetic bottleneck at that time.

During this crisis, all human life was situated in Africa. Once the species began to rebound, humans spread out of Africa as hunter/gatherer populations foraged in search of sustenance. Populations spread into the Middle East and from there went west to populate Europe, east and south to populate Asia, or east and north over the Bering Strait to populate North and later South America.

When the genetic sequences of Kostenki 14 were compared to modern European sequences, a surprising correlation occurred—the ancient sequences were remarkably similar to modern DNA. The implication is that unlike the expected sequences indicating waves of discrete migrations, the genetic results show that the modern European developed by a constant flow of incoming populations with gene flow moving in all directions. The theory of groups moving into an area, killing off the previous inhabitants and then taking over has been disproved.

Another interesting point is that Kostenki 14’s genetic makeup is significantly different from those of ancient Asians or Australeo-Malaysians, indicating the genetic split between these groups that occurred as the groups separated after leaving Africa occurred before 35,000 B.C.

Photo credit: Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Two Parts Bloody Murder by Jen J. Danna

Two Parts Bloody Murder

by Jen J. Danna

Giveaway ends December 11, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win



A quick message for Catherine...

Catherine, I got your message through the contact page, but I can't reply because the email address doesn't exist. I'd love to help you out, so please contract me again via email at jenjdanna@gmail.com. Thanks!


Where Do Stories Come From?

The second most common question I get concerns where ideas for our novels come from (the most common questions concern what it’s like to write with a partner). Do we dream up the basic storyline out of nothing? Do we rely on news stories or personal experiences? Do other people suggest ideas? As it’s often a mix of all of the above, I thought it might be fun to look at where some of our ideas have come from.

Ann and I have the two-heads-are-better-than-one advantage and our storylines often start small and then bloom as each of us takes suggestions from the other and builds higher. But that teamwork has to start with an initial idea. So, without spoilers, because we don’t want to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t read the books (and those of you who have will know exactly what we’re talking about), where did our ideas start?

DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT: A large part of the storyline for this novel was based in the setting. We were starting a new series and wanted to set it firmly in Essex, Massachusetts. Since a significant portion of history and life in Massachusetts, especially in that coastal region, involves the ocean and it’s shoreline, we picked the location of the body dump site and worked backwards around where the bodies exactly were found, what state they’d be in and why they were there.

NO ONES SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL: This story started with the details of the extremely specific bone injury involved. Because this kind of damage was so characteristic of a certain culture, the rest of the story fell in to place behind the type of abuse the victim portrayed.

A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH: We can thank our good friend and fire captain Lisa Giblin for this book. There are two arms to this story and she was behind both of them. The osteological angle in this story came from a suggestion after Lisa watched a TV documentary on it. As soon as she introduced the idea (one that we were unfamiliar with up to that time), we knew we had to find a way to set a book around it. And Lisa offered to be our consultant if we ever wanted to write a book about fire and arson. As any victim recovered from a fire would be prime consulting material for Matt, we jumped at the chance. We couldn’t have written this book without Lisa’s incredible knowledge and willingness to get into the trenches with us, right to the extent of mapping out all our fire scenes and rescue attacks, teaching us a huge portion of what she knew, and reviewing the manuscript multiple times to make sure we had our details correct.

TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER: The main story idea for this book actually came out of a side discussion of a very minor point in NO ONES SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL. Ann and I were discussing how the perp might be caught and Ann made an offhand comment about basements. I questioned whether buildings in that area had basements (because not all do, depending on terrain and other surrounding conditions). Ann replied that of course they had basements; that’s how they managed to hide a large number of the speakeasies during Prohibition. I kind of wish someone could have snapped a picture of the stunned look on my face and the light bulb over my head in that instant as the driving theme behind TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER was born.

Abbott and Lowell #5 (unnamed WIP): We have a lot of things to manage in our current manuscript. Not only do we have the full case that will push the story more into thriller territory than straight forensic mystery, but we have the long arc storyline that started in A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH that needs to be resolved. So it’s a busy book. But as far as the main case goes, the most important victim detail came from listening to a podcast featuring Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass (better known together as the writing team of Jefferson Bass). Dr. Bass made a comment about something found in every forensics lab and we realized it would be the perfect way to hide our victim in plain sight as well as reintroduce Matt’s nemesis readers were briefly introduced to in concept in DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT.

Abbott and Lowell #6 (planned): Even though we’re still writing book 5, we already have a good idea where this book is going. The main story line will actually be crafted to fit where we need the team to be emotionally in this book, a state that drives the majority of the story and will push them into what we have conceived for book 7.

Abbott and Lowell #7 (planned): This book has been planned since the series was born. The character of Juka Petrović was put in place in the very first book to allow for the horrors this book will examine. It’s a history that has touched us with its tragedy and infuriated us with how the situation was handled. It’s a story that isn’t known nearly well enough, but this will give us the opportunity to highlight it and inform our readers through our fiction.

Abbott and Lowell #8 (planned): Ann brought a news story to my attention this week, and that story line may very well turn into the plot for book 8. It’s got everything we need—a mystery, tragedy and the bone clues we need to hang our hat on.

So that’s a quick rundown of where the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, past and future, have come from. For the other writers in the group, where have your ideas come from?

Photo credit: Kamil Porembiński

It’s giveaway time! TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER will release in February of 2015 and we’ve got ARCs to give away months beforehand. Want a signed advanced reading copy of Matt and Leigh’s next exciting adventure? Sign up here: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/116827-two-parts-bloody-murder. The giveaway is open until 11:59pm on November 30th, so don’t miss out!