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Jack the Ripper Revisted (or not, as the case may be…)

Before we start into this week’s blog post, Ann and I wanted to give a little shout out to Kirkus Reviews who has once again reviewed our upcoming novel, saying of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER: “Leigh's fourth is a complex case loaded with forensic and historical detail, the authors' best so far.” For those who are interested in the full review (warning— which comes with some spoilers), you can find it here.

Two months ago we covered the supposed revelation of the identification of Jack the Ripper more than 125 years after the Ripper’s final kill. It was a story that made a very big splash and was carried on almost every news outlet in the English-speaking world (and beyond). It also accompanied Russell Edwards’ book on the same topic, Naming Jack the Ripper. In our response to the story, we outlined all the reasons we were more than skeptical about the identification. However, we didn’t have access to the samples to be able to put data-driven science behind our opinion; we simply logicked through the information provided and were entirely unconvinced that Aaron Kosminski was the Ripper.

The original case naming Aaron Kosminski as the Ripper rested entirely on the discovery of a shawl that was posited to belong to Ripper victim Kate Eddows. According to Dr. Jari Louhelainen, the scientist working with Edwards, the shawl was matched to Karen Miller, a descendant of Kate Eddows, and thereby to Kate herself by showing an extremely rare genetic connection—a gene called 314.1c—in the mitochondrial DNA passed down through the female line of the Eddows family. Due to the scarcity of this gene in the general population, it was deemed that the shawl must have come from Eddows. The entire case rested on this one point.

Last month, in a story that barely made a ripple on the vast ocean of current media, it was announced that other scientists got access to Louhelainen's data, and science simply doesn’t support the Ripper identity claim. What was declared to be the rare gene 314.1C (occurring in only 1 in 290,000 people), was, in fact, the extremely common gene 315.1c (occurring in 99 out of 100 people of European decent). Four well-known and respected experts in the field of DNA analysis and fingerprinting all agree that there is no ground for a direct match between the modern family member and the scarf.

It has been stated that Dr. Louhelainen used an ‘error of nomenclature’ when doing his analysis and carried that error into announcing his findings. But the bottom line in this case is that nearly anyone could have left the DNA on the shawl that is attributed to the victim of Jack the Ripper. Without this crucial link, the rest of Edwards’ case for Aaron Kosminski falls apart.

With all the fuss and furor over the revelation that Jack the Ripper had been identified, it’s a shame that the news disproving this claim has hardly been noticed. For us, at least, this was no surprise considering the previous analysis. But for the majority of the world, I suspect they still believe that the Ripper case has been closed.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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/115336-two-parts-bloody-murder. The giveaway is open until 11:59pm on November 20th, so don’t miss out!


Paperback Cover Reveal – DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT

More than a year ago, our debut novel and the first in the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, released in hardcover and eBook formats. Last spring Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries purchased the mass market rights to the novel and will be releasing this version in January. Recently we were treated to some details of their version of the book, from a brand new cover to a different version of the back cover copy.

Here is the all new version of the mass market cover:

We always write out own back cover copy for our Five Star releases, so it was interesting to see someone else’s take on the book in the HQN version of that same copy:

Dark Tide… Her past is as troubled as the storm-battered marshes near her Massachusetts town. Still, for State Trooper Leigh Abbott, those brutalized by crime will always matter more than her reputation or career. So when a single human bone turns up in a beaver dam, she has no problem skirting the rules to consult forensic anthropologist Dr. Matthew Lowell. His skills and her persistence lead them to the grimmest of discoveries—a mass grave of the tortured and murdered going back years…

But a near-fatal attack on the desolate shoreline tips Leigh that the serial killer they’ve interrupted is anything but scared off. As she and Matt carefully excavate the nameless victims’ lives and secrets, their quarry is using their deepest vulnerabilities against them. Now it will only take one insidious misdirection, one lethal chance to bait a trap that could sweep them both away without a trace.

So, what do you think? How do you like the brand new version of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT? And there’s more to come in this series from Worldwide Mysteries as A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH is set to release in mass market format in April….

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/115336-two-parts-bloody-murder. The giveaway is open until 11:59pm on November 20th, so don’t miss out!


Traveling This Week…





I’m in New Orleans this week frolicking in the French Quarter attending The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene for our annual international dengue investigators meeting. But I’ll be back next week with an all new post! See you then…

Photo credit: David Ohmer


Forensic Case Files: A Look at Gladiator Diets, 2000 Years Later

In past Forensics 101 posts, we talked about the use of radioactive isotopes to establish the geographical origins of remains, the date of death post WWII, and the date of death for remains older than 100 years (i.e. Joan of Arc). Recently a journal article was published by PLOS One, an open source scientific journal that anyone can access (most scientific journals are paid content only). In the article, the authors used isotopes to look back at the gladiators of ancient Rome in an attempt to discern their diet.

Texts from the time derogatorily describe a ‘gladiator diet’ of beans and barley; a diet quite different than today’s protein-heavy regimens for muscle building. But using the tools of both stable isotopes (carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur) and inorganic bone components (calcium and strontium), the authors of the article tried to analyze gladiator remains to see if they could compare their diet to that of upper class Romans of the time.

Their research is partly based on the phenomenon of C3 carbon fixation in plants as opposed to C4 carbon fixation. Carbon fixation is a part of photosynthesis, leading to sugar metabolism, and the production of energy with oxygen as a waste by-product. C3 fixation is used by such plants as wheat and barley with carbon dioxide and a sugar as the starting materials. C4 fixation, a newer evolutionary pathway exploited by plants such as millet and corn, starts with the same sugar, but uses malate as the source of carbon dioxide, instead of the surrounding atmosphere.

Also in the authors’ research toolbox is the nitrogen found in bone collagen that indicates the amount of animal protein consumed. Sulfur, co-located in that same collagen, can indicate a living environment where higher sulfur levels correspond to a sea-side location, often tied to increased seafood as part of the daily diet. We have previously discussed how strontium levels are measured and how they indicate location. The ratio of strontium to calcium corresponds to the plant-to-meat ratio in the diet.

While some gladiators were voluntary Roman citizens, the majority of them were slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war. Through winning combat, even the lowly could be raised up to the equivalent of Roman rock star status, and the promise of gladiator school was reintegration into normal society. . . if you won.

It's rare to discover remains of actual gladiators—skeletons with the characteristic trauma patterns that match descriptions of combat. These kinds of remains tend to be very few and far between, but an entire gladiator graveyard was discovered in Turkey, on Panayirda Hill, in 1992. Gladiator remains were sampled from this location; normal Roman citizen remains were excavated from a number of nearby cemeteries. All the gladiators were male, while the Roman citizens were a mix of male and female. The researchers sampled a total of 88 individuals dating back to the 1st to 3rd century A.D.

So keeping all the possible isotopes in mind, what did the researchers actually discover when they compared the gladiators to the upper-class Romans?

Carbon: Both groups consumed wheat and barley as a staple part of their diet.

Nitrogen: This was where the researchers found the greatest deviation within the gladiator group itself, suggesting that some gladiators were meat eaters, contradicting the original hypothesis of a uniform gladiator diet. But between the two groups overall, there was no statistical difference.

Sulfur: Both groups were surprisingly low on average, indicating that even though the two groups lived near the Aegean Sea, as a population, they were not seafood eaters. Any outliers in both groups are postulated to be immigrants from other areas since they tended to sit outside the normal range for multiple isotopes.

Strontium/calcium ratio: This is where the largest difference occurred between the two groups with the gladiators having levels nearly twice as high as their Roman contemporaries (statistically highly significant). Overall, a high ratio indicates a plant and vegetable heavy diet, while a low ratio suggests a better balance between the green foods supplying the strontium and dairy products etc. supplying calcium. The higher gladiator ratio implies that contemporary upper class Romans had a more varied and dairy-rich diet. Another possible explanation for the high values in the gladiators is the post-combat consumption of a drink that included plant ash as an ingredient, commonly used as a spice in cooking and as a pain killer. Yet another suggestion is that due to their training, gladiators had increased calcium metabolism and turnover in their bones. This would lead to a more constant level of strontium and a decreasing level of calcium, resulting in a higher ratio value.

The overall conclusion drawn is that the gladiators did not overall have a greatly different diet than their Roman contemporaries. There is the possibility of a difference in dairy consumption, but it is just as likely that it was their physiological state that lead to any differences in the trace elements. Hats off to the authors for some interesting detective work almost two thousand years after the fact!

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


What's in a Title?

Ann and I are in the last few weeks of working on a new series proposal and we’ve hit that time, that dreaded time, when we have to come up with . . . a title. *cue scary horror movie music* You might think: It’s a title. How hard can it be? But when you consider what rides on a title—it needs to not only reach out and grab a reader’s interest, but also convey the tone of the book—it’s actually a key part of any novel and can’t be taken lightly.

Normally, we write the entire book first and have the luxury of settling into the story, so a title comes to us mostly organically. Ann is the title master; throughout the overwhelming majority of our writing together, she’s come up with both our book and chapter titles (and explanations). We tend to take our titles from other works, mostly poetry, using material in the public domain, or with express permission of the author or their estate.

The title for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT is a line of poetry from an 1865 Civil War poem called Behind the Lines, about a Union soldier, wounded and near death on a battlefield. He fears that he will be buried in an unmarked grave and remain forever unknown:

Dead? and here—where yonder banner
Flaunts its scanty group of stars,
And that rebel emblem binds me
Close within those bloody bars.
Dead? without a stone to tell it,
Nor a flower above my breast!
Dead? where none will whisper softly,
"Here a brave man lies at rest!"

We changed the punctuation around a bit, but felt it was the perfect title for our debut novel. Admittedly it’s a mouthful, but for those of you who have read the book, you know exactly how well suited it is for the burial ground in the story.

The poem Until I Fall by HaliJo Webster, is the source of the title for NO ONE SEES ME ‘TIL I FALL, a story about loss of identity and how we fit into society, our own and the larger society around us:

I shout and no one seems to hear.
I dance naked and no one responds.
I wow my "self" and stand higher
than any mountain I have stood on before!
No one sees me.
Not till I fall.

A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH was the trickiest title for us so far, as we tried to link the concepts of fire and death in the same line of text. When we finally discovered the 1923 poem Fire, written by Australia’s Dorothea Mackellar, we knew we’d finally found what we were looking for:

This life that we call our own
Is neither strong nor free;
A flame in the wind of death,
It trembles ceaselessly.

The title for the upcoming TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER was the earliest title we matched with a novel. Ann found this little gem in a book called The Devil’s Dictionary. Originally a series of satirical newspaper columns written by Ambrose Bierce between 1881 and 1887, it was published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book before taking on its final title in 1911.

BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave, and four parts clarified Satan. Dose, a headful all the time. Brandy is said by Dr. Johnson to be the drink of heroes. Only a hero will venture to drink it.

An aspect of the storyline for TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER centers around Prohibition, so the combination of murder and alcohol implied in the title was simply perfect for us.

So what makes a good title? A title needs to be clever, but not so clever that it is misunderstood by the reader. It needs to not only identify the intended audience, but sometimes more specifically the exact series it is a part of. A good title is memorable and sets the tone for the story it encapsulates (Okay, the title for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT is maybe not memorable because of its length and structure, but it totally sets the tone for the book!).

Will a publisher keep the title you’ve worked on so diligently once they’ve purchased your manuscript? Not necessarily, but we’ve had excellent luck so far since every one of our titles has been accepted without question. Will that luck continue? Not necessarily, but an author certainly hopes so when she puts this much work into finding the perfect title. As far as we are concerned, we work at this aspect of storytelling assuming the title will be a keeper because if it suits so well, perhaps our editor will agree with our choice. Wish us luck…

Photo credit: Dustin Gaffke (photo has been cropped from original size)