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Forensic Case Files: A Bad Rap for the Rats?

An interesting story broke a few weeks ago while we were on our run up to the release of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. So I filed it away, with the intent of coming back to it. Last week’s story on the discovery of the Bedlam Cemetery—containing Black Plague victims, among others—reminded me about it.

We’ve covered the Black Plague on several occasions—in 2013 when victims were discovered during the Crossrail project, and in 2014, when my own university colleague, Dr. Hendrick Poinar, sequenced the genome of the 14th century pathogen responsible for that specific wave of the plague. The common belief held for centuries is that rodents, specifically black rats, were responsible for the spread of the disease through Europe. The rats carried diseased fleas from location to location, moving through cities on foot and across continents by stowing away in caravans and on boats. But authors of a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences propose that climate data from the time directly contradicts that explanation.

The optimum climate for rats includes warm summers with moderate precipitation. But looking at climate data for the time, there is no direct tie to European weather patterns. Instead, there is a direct correlation to Asian weather patterns, specifically wet springs followed by warm summers in central Asia. After each optimal Asian seasonal combination, Europe would experience a plague outbreak several weeks later. And while this is terrible weather for rats, it’s optimal for Asia’s gerbil population. These rodents could clandestinely travel the Silk Road, arriving several weeks later in Europe, bearing the plague where it then spread like wild fire. Finding a climate not to their liking, the gerbils would slowly die out and the epidemic would eventually abate. This would explain the way epidemics seemed to arrive in waves—each fresh wave was preceded by optimal Asian weather, prime gerbil breeding conditions, and a fresh arrival of disease-carrying gerbils in a vulnerable Europe.

Scientists will test this theory by examining DNA sequences from skeletons of European plague victims that died at various times. If the sequence of Y. pestis only slowly drifts over the decades and centuries, then that will support the previously held belief that there were local European reservoirs of disease from which each new epidemic sprung. But significant deviations in the DNA sequences will indicate that the disease arrived in fresh waves with each epidemic.

Maybe then, it will be time to apologize to the black rats for centuries of blame.

Photo credit: Shankar S. and S.J. Pyrotechnic


Forensic Case Files: Bedlam Cemetery Unearthed

We’ve talked about London’s Crossrail project before here on Skeleton Keys. Two years ago, this massive project to dig ­­21km of new underground tunnels in London uncovered a burial ground of Black Plague victims. Just last week, a new archeological treasure was unearthed—a cemetery of over 3,000 16th and 17th century skeletons, many of which came from London’s infamous Bedlam Hospital.

The word ‘bedlam’—a term associated with insanity or madness—comes from the real name of the first European hospital specializing in mental illness: the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, founded in 1247 as the priory of New Order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. ‘Bethlehem’ was often referred to as ‘Bethlem’, which in turn took on the nickname ‘Bedlam’. Never originally intended to be a hospital, Bedlam originated as a collection center for alms to support the Crusades. However, by the late 14th and early 15th centuries, it was being used to house and care for the insane, with patient records dating back to 1403. By 1460, the hospital had taken on this role as its specialization.



The Bedlam burial ground, London’s first municipal cemetery, was originally located just outside the city walls. It was not only used by Bedlam hospital, but by the city as a whole—it contains Black Death victims from the Great Plague of London in 1665, as well as victims on the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the 1660s really weren’t a great time to live in London!). The death toll from the Great Fire is unknown due to a lack of record keeping of the lower and middle classes—officially only six upper class individuals died in a fire where nearly 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 houses were lost; this seems like an unrealistically low number. But an estimated 100,000 or 25% of London’s population died in the Great Plague, many of whom were interred in the Bedlam burial ground.

I admire the Crossrail administrators for their involvement in their city’s history. On multiple occasions, the project has screeched to a sudden halt as important Roman or Renaissance artefacts or skeletons were discovered during the dig. Each time, the project has paused in that area for months while archeologists swooped in to recover their priceless pieces of history. In this case, a team of sixty archeologists working six days a week hope to excavate and remove all the skeletons in the next four weeks, after which, excavation will continue. After examination, the skeletons will be reinterred in Essex.

Photo credit: Crossrail



Our Biggest Publishing News Yet! And a Cover Reveal…

During late summer and into the fall of 2014, Ann and I were furiously busy working on a proposal for a new series. As much as we love the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, we wanted to try our hand at something different to keep our writing fresh. And today we’re thrilled to be able to share the news of our brand new publishing deal with Kensington Books! LONE WOLF will be the first in a three book, hardcover series, edited by Kensington’s Peter Senftleben. In it, we meet Meg Jennings, an agent in the FBI’s K-9 unit, and the handler of Kane, one of the unit’s multi-talented search and rescue dogs. This is a real unit, specializing in search and rescue, drug and explosives detection, and tracking in federal crimes. In this series, we’ll follow Meg and her black lab along with her fellow FBI agents and their dogs as they track down bombers, murderers and hijackers, rescuing the lost and injured along the way. It’s a new publishing house for us and a new series, so we’re going to be trying out a new single pen name this time around—Sara Driscoll. But never fear, nothing will actually change when it comes to the writing; it’s still Ann and I behind the prose.

Huge thanks to our wonderful agent Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency for working so hard to put together this deal, literally from its inception. Her Publishers Marketplace announcement went up today:

March 2, 2015 - LONE WOLF by Jen Danna and Ann Vanderlaan
Fiction: Thriller
Jen Danna and Ann Vanderlaan writing as Sara Driscoll’s new suspense series, beginning with LONE WOLF, in which an FBI K-9 handler and her search-and-rescue dog fight to stop a mad bomber targeting sites around Washington D.C., to Peter Senftleben at Kensington, in a three-book deal for publication in Spring 2016, by Nicole Resciniti at The Seymour Agency.

Want to know a little more about LONE WOLF? Here’s the blurb for the FBI K-9s, book 1:

When a madman goes on a bombing spree, an FBI K-9 team of one woman and her dog is the key to stopping him before more innocents die and panic sweeps the Eastern seaboard.

Meg Jennings and her Labrador Kane are one of the FBI’s top K-9 teams certified for tracking and search and rescue. When a bomb rips apart a government building on the National Mall in Washington D.C., it will take all the team’s skill to locate and save the workers and children buried beneath the rubble.

More victims die and fear rises as the unseen bomber continues his reign of terror, striking additional targets, ruthlessly bent on pursuing a personal agenda of retribution. Meg and Kane join the task force dedicated to following the trail of death and destruction to stop the killer. But when the attacks spiral wide and no single location seems safe any longer, it will come down to a battle of wits and survival skills between Meg, Kane, and the bomber they’re tracking. Can they stop him before he brings the nation to the brink of chaos?

We’re looking forward to introducing our readers to Meg and Kane next year!

With all this talk of a new series, we know one of the questions we’re going to get is what is going to happen to Matt and Leigh and the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries? Never fear, a lot is going on there too. The third full length novel in the series, TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, comes out on February 18th. And we’ve nearly completed the next full length novel which follows it, with a planned 2016 release date. We have no plans to end the series. There may be a bit of a delay between our recently completed fourth novel and the one to follow as we’ll be writing two series (all while I juggle the day job at the lab), but we fully intend to come back and continue the adventures of Matt, Leigh and the team around our contracted installments of the FBI K-9s.





Last November we were pleased to show off the new cover for the mass market version of DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, which Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries released in January 2015.




The next full length novel in the series, A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH, will release in mass market paperback from Harlequin Worldwide Mysteries in April 2015. We recently got our first peek at the new cover, which continues the strong series branding:

As before, Worldwide Mysteries likes to write its own material, so we’ve got a brand new and exciting version of the back cover copy for this book as well:

State Trooper Leigh Abbott and forensic anthropologist Dr. Matt Lowell are happy in their new relationship. But their latest investigation is tough to take on, even together: the charred body of ex-Wiccan Moira Simpson was stabbed through the heart with a ritual dagger. Leigh is certain one of the many former friends and lovers Moira alienated with her ruthless egotism is responsible.

Then a local priest is hacked to death with a ceremonial sickle and his body is found burned beyond recognition. Now amid growing panic and community backlash, Leigh and Matt will pursue dark rumors and obscure clues, looking to the past to reveal a killer. But the truth could burn more than their future to ashes.

And that should do for our publishing news this time around. :)


When a Character Takes on a Life of His Own

I had an interesting discussion with a co-worker a week or so ago. We were chatting about books and writing (as we so often do) and she asked if I’d ever had a character take on a life of its own and go in a direction I didn’t originally anticipate. I was about to answer ‘no, we plan too much for that’, when I realized it had happened to us in the form of Medical Examiner Dr. Edward Rowe.

Rowe was introduced as a minor character in our first series book, DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT. When a murder is committed, clearly an autopsy needs to be done, so we always planned for someone to fill this role. It was only when I went down to Boston on one of my research trips and learned how budget constraints actually affected the Office of the Medical Examiner that Rowe really started to come into his own. The truth of the matter in Massachusetts is they don’t send out a medical examiner or coroner to see the body in situ following a suspicious death; they simply don’t have the budget to support that. Instead, techs go out, collect the body and bring it back to the morgue in south Boston to be autopsied at a later time. It’s an incredibly problematic technique that we illustrated in an early scene between Matt and Leigh:


A few minutes later, Leigh came back to stand beside Matt. “They’re on their way. They understand that we’re in a hurry, so they’ll get here as fast as possible. I also called the M.E.’s office to keep Rowe in the loop.”

“Does he want to check out the site before we start?”

“Rowe?” She started to turn away. “He and his staff don’t come out to sites.”

Matt reached out, catching her arm to stop her. “What do you mean ‘they don’t come out to sites’? Then who does liver temp, lividity, and rigor to determine time of death in a fresh victim?”

“No one.”


Leigh shook off his hand. “Jurisdictions that can afford it send the M.E. or an assistant to a crime scene to do an on-site examination of the body to help establish time of death. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn’t have that in the budget.”

“Then who comes out to get the body?”

“The M.E.’s office will send a couple of techs to properly bag the body and transport it to the morgue. Once there, they do as-is photos, take fingerprints, and then toe-tag the body before storing it in the cooler. And that’s all they do until the autopsy, which can be days later. But that’s not all.”

“I can’t believe it. There’s more?”

“They base time of death on L.S.A.—the time the victim was last seen alive.”

Matt gaped at her in disbelief. “That’s incredibly inaccurate.”

“I know. So does Rowe. He’s well aware that they’re losing convictions because they can’t nail down time of death more precisely. He’s argued for additional funding to cover this for years, but no one is listening. This is just the reality of what the budget will allow and the constraints we have to work with. Anyway, when it comes to this particular case, Rowe will fully review all photos, evidence reports, and your written report as soon as it hits his desk, and will consult with you personally at that time.”

“I’m . . . appalled. I haven’t worked with the police a lot but I know colleagues back in Tennessee who do. That’s not how they do it there.”

“It shouldn’t be how we do it here. That’s why Rowe’s trying to change it.”

I confess that pretty much everything going through Matt’s mind in that scene was what went through mine when I heard about their protocols. But it gave us an opportunity to flesh out what started as a minor character. So, instead of settling for the status quo, Rowe takes time out his own schedule to attend to as many deaths as he can, hoping to prove those cases have a better conviction rate, and better funding will be the downstream result. Justice means something to Rowe and he’ll do what he can to obtain it for his victims even at his own personal cost. So we started seeing Rowe at all our major crime scenes, starting with the first fresh victim in DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT and continuing in every series installment from that point on. Reader reaction has shown us that Rowe is one of our most beloved minor characters.

However, Rowe’s character really stepped into the stoplight in TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER when it turned out he was a history buff and could be the team’s guide into the world of Prohibition era Boston and the Mobs. It wasn’t something we planned, it just… evolved, led to a degree by the character as I was writing him. It was a great development of a much loved character and we’re thrilled with how it turned out. Some characters initially seem like sketched-in placeholders whereas some characters spring forth as nearly complete personas from the first moment they hit the page—Rowe is definitely that kind of character.

We tend to be fairly major planners, so we don’t have the advantage of pantsers by just letting our characters lead the way through the story. This was definitely a situation where a single character took the bit in his teeth and grabbed some of the control right out of my hands. For other writers in the group, has this ever happened to you?




Whoo hoo! *throws confetti* TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER is now out! The fourth installment of the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries throws Matt and Leigh into a case with strong ties to the past. The story brings not only students Kiko, Paul and Juka into the investigation, but also one of our most popular minor characters, Medical Examiner Dr. Edward Rowe, who turns out to be the perfect guide to the world of Prohibition and the Mob wars of the 1930s:


Prohibition was a time of clandestine excess—short skirts, drinking, dancing . . . and death. But a murder committed so many years ago still has the power to reverberate decades later with deadly consequences.

It’s a double surprise for Trooper Leigh Abbott as she investigates a cold case and discovers two murder victims in a historic nineteenth-century building. Together with forensic anthropologist Matt Lowell and medical examiner Dr. Edward Rowe, she uncovers the secrets of a long-forgotten, Prohibition-era speakeasy in the same building. But when the two victims are discovered to be relatives—their deaths separated by over eighty years—the case deepens, and suddenly the speakeasy is revealed as ground zero for a cascade of crimes through the decades. When a murder committed nearly forty years ago comes under fresh scrutiny, the team realizes that an innocent man was wrongly imprisoned and the real murderer is still at large. Now they must solve three murders spanning over eighty years if they hope to set a wronged man free.

Available in hardcover and eBook, you can find TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER on line at Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk, and Barnes and Noble, and in stores at Chapters/Indigo and at your local independent sellers!

For those wanting some supplemental content to accompany the book, I’ve posted a new picture gallery from my trip to Lynn in November 2013 when we were doing final finishing touches on the manuscript. Many of the real locations from the novel can be found here: http://www.jenjdanna.com/picture-gallery/lynn-massachusetts/.

And for anyone in the Southern Ontario area, we’re celebrating the book’s release on March 8, 2015 at 2pm at A Different Drummer Books at 513 Locust Street in Burlington, Ontario. Hope to see some of you there!

Photo credit: Pixietart