Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Comfort Reads for Uncomfortable Times: a guest blog by Tasha Alexander

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm logging in from my local library to post this, since I (as well as several other east-coast Reds) am still without power. Fortunately, I don't have to write anything clever; our friend Tasha Alexander volunteered to take on blogging duties today. 

I know Tasha is one of the Reds communities favorite authors. Her Victorian-era Lady Emily novels brings together wicked mysteries and heart-stirring romance in stunning locations like Vienna, Constantinople and Venice. The latest in the series, Death in the Floating City, was a New York Times bestseller. 

Since Tasha and her dashingly handsome husband Andrew Grant live in Chicago and the UK, we're usually the ones consoling her for lousy weather. (If you've ever taken a cross-country flight in the US, you know about Chicago's tumultuous climate.) She knows about the stresses and strains we all come under - and has a wonderful suggestion for easing them.

The pounding given to the East Coast by Hurricane Sandy has put me to thinking about comfort and those things we do when we need it. Most of us are fortunate enough to be assured of basic material comforts--food, shelter, clothing. But that does not mean we don't face challenges, disappointments, and a variety of seemingly unending stresses, and we all need means to cope with them.

Last year when I was here, I talked about books I wished I could read again for the first time. This year, I'm considering those dog-eared volumes that, like the most loyal and steadfast friends, stand by us through every difficulty. I have many, many comfort reads. First come the old favorites. The really old favorites. On the Banks of Plum Creek and These Happy Golden Years from Laura Ingalls Wilder's wonderful Little House series got me through those horrible pre-teen years when I spent most of my time at school dances crying in the bathroom. It probably speaks badly of me, but I took great joy in reading about Nellie Oleson dancing around the creek bank with leeches stuck all over her legs.

As I got older, Gone With the Wind became a favorite. I would get to the end of my enormous hardcover edition (a tenth birthday present) and turn straight back to page one. Until, that is, Scarlett's story was eclipsed for me by Pride and Prejudice.

Sometimes, when I'm stressed, I need a giant heap of books that I can tear through, one after another, to fill loads and loads of time. Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series could not be better for this. Amelia's wit and intelligence can divert my attention from almost anything.

Then there are the times when what I really want is something more ethereal. That's when I go back to Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and escape into a bizarre world that is at once magical and disturbing. Not to mention written in some of the most beautiful sentences ever.

Interestingly enough, what I don't turn to for comfort is the book I consider to be my absolute favorite, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Maybe that's because I don't want it tainted by whatever is causing me stress. Maybe it's because I want to keep it separate. I'm not sure. But I am sure about the one book that, no matter what, never ever lets me down when I'm in need. I think we all have a book like this--the one you can never tire of reading, the best dependable friend. For me, that's Pride and Prejudice. What's yours?

Let us know your comfort read, and one luck commenter will receive a signed hardcover of the newest Lady Emily mystery, Death in the Floating City!

You can find out more about New York Times bestselling author Tasha Alexander and read excerpts of her books at her website. You can follow her on Twitter as @talexander, friend her on Facebook, and see some of the actual locations in her novels on Flickr.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Will Sell Dreams for Food: a guest blog by Laura DiSilverio

Julia Spencer-Fleming:  Laura DiSilverio has a pretty high profile in the mystery world. She's the author of ten mystery novels, including the Mall Cop series for Berkley Prime Crime and the Swift Investigations humorous PI series for Minotaur. She teaches for MWA’s Mystery University, and serves as Vice-President of the National Board of Sisters in Crime (where our own Hank Phillippi Ryan is President!) 

But it wasn't until I met Laura in person that I realized how much we have in common. We're both Air Force brats. Like my husband Ross, the USAF was Laura's first career - she was an intelligence officer. We both left practical jobs to try our hand at writing and spend more time mothering. And, most significantly at this point in our lives, we're both dealing with teens and preteens at home. Which is why, when Laura said, "I want to write about the ridiculous ideas lofty goals my kids have for the future," I knew we had to have her here at JRW.

Will Sell Dreams for Food

My older daughter, 15, is planning for a career on Broadway. She takes voice and dance (musical theater and tap), sings with the school choir, performs in school plays, and spent six weeks this past summer working nine to five every day with the youth rep company she auditioned for last March. Her father and I watch all this with a certain degree of—shall we say?—trepidation.

We’re worried for her, that she’s aiming for a career where .0004 percent of the people who try to make it succeed (okay, I made that figure up, but I doubt it’s far off—it might even be generous), and she’s bound to meet with soul-eroding rejection while living on Ramen noodles, selling her blood plasma, and sharing a studio apartment with six roommates of dubious hygiene habits and countless cockroaches.

We’re worried for us, that we’ll empty our retirement funds to support her in NYC and she’ll return home at thirty, disillusioned and worn down, trashing her chances for more conventional employment by quoting Lady MacBeth at job interviews, and making it impossible for hubby and me to continue with our plan of getting frisky in every room of the house whenever we want and as loudly as we want once we’re empty nesters.
Must Be This Tall to Ride the Rollercoaster
Daughter the younger, newly turned 13, plans to attend Stanford on a volleyball scholarship, study engineering and architecture, and become both an architect and an Indian fast food restaurant billionaire. (She has long lamented that there are no fast food joints that serve Indian food and she’s planning to fill that gap.) This might all be more likely if she was taller than 5’3” since the average Stanford volleyballer looks to be about 6’3”. We don’t squelch this dream too hard because she’s got a decent shot at getting into Stanford on an academic scholarship and we’re in favor of the whole billionaire thing since she says she’ll support us.

The Parenting Dilemma
The parenting question we struggle with is this: How do you encourage kids to dream and follow their passions, and yet inject enough sanity into the process that they’re prepared to cope with failure and know when it’s time to try something else? Don’t look at me for the answer, ’cause I got nothin’, although I have been known to extol the benefits of a career as an actuary, mortician or IT specialist with benefits. If you’ve got good parenting advice on this topic, bring it on.

Dream On
This all made me think about having the courage to follow our dreams and passions, even the little ones. I spent twenty years in the Air Force, dreaming of being a novelist, and now that’s how I make my living. (Okay, it’s not much of a living. If I didn’t have a pension and a hubby with a good job, my children would be dreaming of secure careers as Wal-Mart greeters, rather than of Broadway, but if I were single I’d be able to afford Spam with my ramen noodles once a week.) I’m still working on my dreams of visiting every continent and learning to ballroom dance.
What about you? What dreams, seemingly ridiculous or hard to achieve, large or small, have you taken a stab at? Going blond? Getting a college degree? Climbing a mountain? Playing an instrument or learning a language? Pursuing a particular career? Are you glad you tried it or do you regret the time and effort you invested? 

Rev up those dreams, leave a comment and get a chance to win an Advance Reader Copy of Laura’s upcoming release, SWIFT RUN, or a copy of the book when it releases on 27 November!  As a fun bonus, check out the Minotaur Art blog, where art director David Rotstein shows us sketch by sketch how his team came up with SWIFT RUN's amusing cover.

Laura's also offering a chance to win an iPod Nano by commenting on an entry in the Courageous Moment essay contest on her blog, The Year of Living Courageously, between now and 14 November.

You can find out more about Laura and her books at her website and at her blog, The Year of Living Courageously. You can follow her on Twitter as @LauraDiSilverio and friend her on Facebook.

Monday, October 29, 2012


UPDATEHere's Hank Phillippi Ryan's 2:30pm update from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Authority: WDHD TV-7

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is already bringing tropical storm conditions to coastal North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Hurricane-force winds are expected to affect the coast from Chintogue, VA to Chatam, MA, with tropical-force gales and rain spreading out across most of the Northeast. Delaware's emptying out, New Jersey's on high alert and the New York subway system is shutting down. And up here in Maine, we're pulling in the boats and getting out the sou'westers.Living on the highest point in our area, I'm not expecting any flooding, but we're prepared for the almost-inevitable power outages: loads of candles and hurricane lamps, fresh batteries in the flashlights, water in jugs and in the tub. (For those of you who have city systems instead of wells, the loss of electricity means the loss of water. Oh, that lonely last flush as the pipes empty out...)

Ross and the kids have spent the weekend raking and bagging leaves, we're stocked up with food - well, honestly, we're always stocked up with food - and even our Smithie called to let us know she was prepared and ready to share her Maine-bred knowledge of storm survival when the power goes out in Northampton.

Over the years, our family has perfected its storm-prep techniques. We've come a long way since the Great Ice Storm of '98. We went for nine long days with no power, then; cooking on the woodstove, taking shivery sponge baths, gravity flushing the toilets. The two children bundled up and slept in one bed to keep warm, and Ross and I alternated rising every three hours at night to keep the fireplaces and stove stoked with wood. After that adventure, no storm can strike fear into my heart again.

How about you, Reds? What are you those of you on the East Coast doing to prep for the Frankenstorm? And what's the worst weather emergency you've lived through?

RHYS BOWEN: I'm currently in Hawaii, about as far from Sandy as possible but I'm sending protective vibes for my Jungle Red sisters on the East Coast. The worst weather event we ever experienced was a flood in Texas. We had 15 inches of rain in 12 hours. The river came out of its banks and joined the rainfall. We watched the water rise, went from house to house helping neighbors put valuables up as high as possible. We were lucky--the water came within half an inch of our slab. All our neighbors flooded and our lights were the only ones in a sea of black water. We sloshed through snake-infested water bringing food to neighbors for several days. Weather events are scary!HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: It's Saturday night ,and so peaceful here. Hard to imagine we're about to get battered. I feel as if I should go BUY something. Batteries.

Weather emergency? I'm a reporter..I've been in floods, hurricanes, ice storms, blizzards (so cold I curled up on the front seat of the news van, certain I'd never be warms again), nor'easters..I guess the worst was Hurricane, ah, I forget. I was sent to cover the storm on the Cape, the winds were more than 90 MPH, it was hard to stand up straight to do my stories. The sand, whipped by the wind, stung my face so hard it made me  cry.   There was nothing, nowhere, and my crew and I stayed at a home on the Cape that was a summer had power, but no food. We ate hot dog buns we found in the freezer, defrostd and topped with canned tomato sauce and frozen romano.

: We lose power a couple of times a year due to storms.
My hubby is from the "it's never as bad as they say it's going to be" school and I'm from the "let's batten down the hatches" so between the two of us we prepare a bit and then forget about it. Batteries, flashlights, candles. We never did get around to buying that generator we talked about and we never fill the bathtub One time we kept running down to the pool and bringing back buckets of pool water. (Good reminder Julia since it's October and the pool is closed!)

During last year's Halloween storm a tree limb came crashing through a skylight in the kitchen. Hope that doesn't happen again. But it was romantic making a fire and reading by candlelight - having an excuse to eat ALL of the ice cream. I've been so many places without power that it doesn't bother me too much. The only thing that does bother me is the possibility of breaking glass. My house is more glass than wood so we tend to stay away from the windows and skylights during one of these crazy storms! Stay safe everyone.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: We live in tornado country, and my hubby has been involved with amateur radio for years, so we're always fairly prepared. Although, like Ro, we've never bought that generator we keep talking about... Thankfully, our house has never been hit by a tornado, but we are also prone to ice storms here that can be brutal. Trees and power lines can go down from the weight of the ice, and utility and city crews are not well equipped to deal with the damage. Winter before last we had a storm that kept us iced in for about five days. Fortunately, we had power for most of the time, lots of firewood, and we have a gas stove and oven, so could still cook.

Hoping all of you on the East Coast stay safe in the next few days.  And fill up those bathtubs!

HALLIE EPHRON: I always fill up the bathtubs but I never understand why I'm doing it. Can someone 'splain?

We're supposed to get lots of rain and wind over several days, but we're not supposed to get nearly the impact that Ro and Roberta will have in Connecticut. So Ladies, stay dry and take care!

I'm very bad at preparing. I have candles... somewhere. And batteries. But where is my transistor radio (remember those?) - I have no idea. We did a grocery store run and got some canned food that I hope I never have to eat. Bought a new flashlight that I hope some of my batteries fit. Checked that our downspouts are working and connected. And we'll try to park the cars out on the street to avoid dropping limbs. Hoping for the best...

JULIA: Hallie, I don't know about everyone else, but we use the water in the tub for washing dishes and for gravity flushing. I'd have to be a much, much more thorough housekeeper to have a tub clean enough to drink from.

Or you could fill the bathtub like this...

 JAN BROGAN: No drinking from my tubs, either Julia.  Hallie, you only need to fill your tub if you are on well water. I'm pretty sure you aren't.  I've got my two filling up as we speak.

I also topped off the car, got two new flashlights and batteries, found the candles and secured a promise we can go live with family with foresight to have bought the generators. My husband is determined to drive down and see how crazy the ocean is - even though the chief of police robo call tells us all to stay in our homes.  

JULIA: We'd love to hear your worst storm story, your survival tips, and how things are in your town. We're hoping that all our East Coast Reds reader stay safe and dry!

Sunday, October 28, 2012


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Autumn has officially arrived in North Texas. Last night we had our first fire; tonight our first frost. And as that chilly arctic air dips down, my thoughts turn, as usual this time of year, to gingerbread.

Specifically, the late novelist and food writer Laurie Colwin's gingerbread.  It has been suggested that Laurie was the first blogger--her columns, which she wrote for Gourmet Magazine from the mid-eighties until her untimely death from heart failure in 1992, were so chatty and friendly and casual. When you read them, you always felt like you were sitting at her kitchen table. I have both collections of Laurie's essays, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, and both books have gingerbread recipes. I prefer the one from the second book, More Home Cooking.

Cooks are such magpies--Laurie borrowed this recipe from a British Penguin book, The Farmhouse Kitchen, by Mary Norwak, so I'm following the tradition by passing it on.

Laurie was a great fan of Steen's Cane Syrup, but I've used ordinary molasses.  Now I think I'm inspired to hunt for Steen's. Laurie was also very insistent that the powdered ginger be fresh, and I agree, so if your ginger has been sitting in the cupboard, buy a new jar just for this.

Laurie Colwin's Old-Fashioned Gingerbread

1. Preheat oven to 375 F. and line the bottom of a buttered 8-inch round tin (2 inches deep) with parchment paper.

2. Melt 1/2 half cup cane syrup or black treacle with 6 tablespoons butter.

3. Beat 1 egg with 4 tablespoons buttermilk.

4. Sift together 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 heaping teaspoons ground ginger, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar, and a pinch of salt. Mix in 3/4 cup dried currants or raisins.

5. Add the egg mixture, then add the syrup mixture, and mix well.

6. Bake 10 minutes in the 375 degree oven turn the heat down to 325 F., and bake for 35 to 40 minutes more. A few crumbs stick to a tester when the cake is done.

I've added my own notes (along with a few bits of smeared gingerbread batter) in the page margins in pencil, the true sign of a well-loved recipe : Add more buttermilk. Check temps carefully. Cook less than recommended

This cake is lovely all on its own, but a tiny bit of fresh unsalted butter or a dab of whipped cream when the bread is warm from the oven makes it divine.

And nothing, I guarantee, will make your house smell more welcoming on a crisp autumn day.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Few will deny that the new BBC production of SHERLOCK, written by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson in a contemporary London, is terrific.  The acting is superb, the plots labyrinthine, the dialogue sparkling and razor sharp. I'm a huge fan of the series, as I am of creators Gatiss and Moffat (Moffat also helms the current version of BBC's DOCTOR WHO.)

But now we upstart Americans have thrown another  Sherlock Holmes into the mix. When CBS announced plans to produce ELEMENTARY, a weekly series which not only moves Holmes to contemporary New York, but portrays Watson as a woman, there were cries of outrage from die-hard Holmes fans (and whispers of potential lawsuits from the producers of SHERLOCK.) But Conan Doyle's Holmes stories are in the public domain, and Holmes and Watson have been portrayed in many different incarnations over the years, both on film and in books.  (Laurie R. King, after all, had the temerity to marry Holmes to her wonderful Mary Russell.)

English actor Jonny Lee Miller plays Holmes as a recovering drug addict, sent to New York for his rehabilitation, and Lucy Liu is Joan Watson, the former surgeon hired by Holmes's father to be his "sober companion."

My verdict, four episodes into the season? It works, and it's huge fun. The plots are not Moffat's and Gatiss's dizzying puzzles, but they are more than clever enough for the hour format. Miller gives us his own version of Holmes's obsessive/compulsive brilliance, and he brings an unexpected vulnerability to the character. Miller, a fine actor, lost the role of James Bond to Daniel Craig, and that of Rick Grimes in THE WALKING DEAD to Andrew Lincoln. I think in ELEMENTARY, he got the plum.

Lucy Liu's Watson, serious and profoundly lonely, brings her own strengths to the partnership. And I think it will be the development of the friendship (NOT romance!) and respect between the partners that will keep this series top notch.

So, REDS and readers? Have you watched? Is it thumbs up or thumbs down for another Holmes?

(And the winner of Michelle Gagnon's DON'T TURN AROUND is Gayle! Gayle, you can email me at deb at deborahcrombie dot com and give me your mailing address. I'll pass it along to Michelle.)

Friday, October 26, 2012


DEBORAH CROMBIE: One of the perks of being a mystery writer is the friends you make along the way. Michelle Gagnon is one of those for me.  We met when we were both guest authors at the Book Passage Mystery Writer's Conference in Corte Madera, California, a few years ago. (Our own Hallie Ephron was a guest author that year, along with half a dozen other writers who have since become good friends.)

I've followed Michelle's career with delight, and am thrilled with the success of her latest book, a young adult thriller called DON'T TURN AROUND.

Michelle's adult mysteries, THE TUNNELS, BONEYARD, THE GATEKEEPER, and KIDNAP AND RANSOM, have been described as utterly gripping, addictively readable thrillers, by the Chicago Tribune. Her latest book, the first in her PERSEF0NE young adult trilogy, has  received starred reviews from both Kirkus and VOYA, and the first installment, DON'T TURN AROUND, was selected for the Autumn 2012 Kids IndieNext list. 

Sixteen-year-old Noa has been a victim of the system ever since her parents died. Now living off the grid and trusting no one, she uses her computer-hacking skills to stay safely anonymous and alone. But when she wakes up on a table in an empty warehouse with an IV in her arm and no memory of how she got there, Noa starts to wish she had someone on her side.

Enter Peter Gregory. A rich kid and the leader of a hacker alliance, Peter needs people with Noa's talents on his team. Especially after a shady corporation threatens his life. But what Noa and Peter don't realize is that Noa holds the key to a terrible secret, and there are those who'd stop at nothing to silence her for good. 

When I saw Michelle at Bouchercon a few weeks ago we did a lot of catching up, but here are the questions I didn't get to ask about her new venture into YA fiction:

DEBS: What inspired you to write a young adult book? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
MICHELLE GAGNON: One of the reasons I switched to YA for this series was that a friend pointed out that I’ve had a strong teen character in nearly all of my adult thrillers, and he suggested I try writing an entire thriller from that point of view.  And it was really liberating-I ended up writing the rough draft in a little over eight weeks, research and all. It hadn’t occurred to me to tackle YA before, but now I’m really happy that I did. I am continuing to write “adult” thrillers too, though (that always sounds dirty to me now).

DEBS: How was it different from writing an adult thriller? Was it easier or harder? 

MICHELLE: This one in particular was easier, but I’m not sure if that was because it was YA. Sometimes the books write themselves, and sometimes it’s like wrestling a giant, vicious alligator into submission. I just finished the second book in the trilogy, and that one was a bit more of a struggle.

DEBS: Are there certain constraints in writing for a younger audience? 

MICHELLE: I did hit a few stumbling blocks, because in my other series the main characters were an FBI agent and security consultant, adults with resources and training at their disposal, and the authority to back up their actions.  Teenagers don’t have those advantages. I also initially wrote a few scenes from the POV of an adult character, which is apparently a big no-no; I revised them to show the teen’s perspective. And I toned down the language a bit during the editing process. I don’t generally incorporate a lot of sex scenes into my work, so that wasn’t an issue. And in terms of the content, it’s just as dark as anything I’ve written previously.

DEBS: What kind of response do you get from your readers?

MICHELLE: It’s been so thrilling to receive fan mail from teens- they’re so lovely and enthusiastic! Plus, they take pictures at events and immediately tweet them, which took some getting used to…

DEBS: I’ve always felt that good YA fiction is simply good fiction, and can contain themes and ideas as meaningful as any in adult fiction. It can not only turn teenagers and young adults into lifelong readers, but shape their perception of the world. Did you—and do you—feel  a sense of responsibility to your readers?

MICHELLE: For me, the pivotal theme in this story is the fact that mainly former foster kids are being victimized. I did a considerable amount of research on the US foster care system (and its many failures), and was alarmed by much of what I read. Consequently, I’ve affiliated with an amazing non-profit called Rising Tides (, that provides financial assistance for education and other life needs to teens who are ageing out of the system, and have no other resources at their disposal. I feel really passionate about that. Without help, a disproportionate percentage of former foster kids end up homeless, in prison, or worse. They really need a support network, and instead, they’re basically pushed out the door once they turn eighteen. I find that unconscionable. Rising Tides is a crowdfunding organization that helps allocate funds to specific teens to help them escape the cycle.

DEBS: I have to mention the super trailer on your website! Did you have any input on that?

MICHELLE: I didn’t, but isn’t it amazing? I was completely blown away by it. I can’t sing HarperTeen’s praises enough, they’ve really championed this book.

DEBS: In 2013, Michelle's YA dystopian thriller STRANGELETS will be published by SoHo TEEN Press. She splits her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. You can find her at, or on Facebook  and Twitter. Michelle will be giving away a copy of DON'T TURN AROUND to a commenter, so be sure to drop in and say "hi." And don't forget to watch the trailer!

(Oh, and our lucky winner of Anna Lee Huber's THE ANATOMIST'S WIFE is Reine! Reine, you can email Anna at info at annaleehuber dot com with your mailing address.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012


DEBORAH CROMBIE: Now, what could be more fun with Halloween coming up than real ghouls? Anna Lee Huber is here to tell us about Burke and Hare, the infamous Edinburgh body snatchers. When I lived in Edinburgh, I could never walk through the Old Town without a little shiver at the thought of those two.

Anna Lee Huber knows whereof she speaks--her debut novel, The Anatomist's Wife, the first in the Lady Darby historical mystery series, is set in Scotland in 1830. 

Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister's estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes. Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage-a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn't about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl. When Kiera and Gage's search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim...

And now Anna will tell us about the real-life villiains...

When people hear the words “body snatcher,” they instantly respond with fear and disgust. They picture shifty, ghoulish characters digging in a cemetery on a moonless night, robbing someone’s loved ones of their eternal peace, and their belongings.  But what they don’t often understand is why body-snatching became so prevalent and necessary in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Prior to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832, British medical schools had difficulty procuring cadavers for their anatomy classes, because only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for this purpose, which amounted to only about two to three bodies annually per school.  In the 1700s there had been hundreds of convicts executed each year for often trivial crimes, but late in the century, changes in the laws, and the introduction of the sentence of transportation, shrank that number to just over fifty.  More medical schools and private anatomical schools were being established each day, and without fresh corpses they couldn’t give their students the hands-on experience they needed.  Not to mention the hindrance this was to serious anatomists trying to better understand the human body and the way diseases affected it. 

Thus began the widespread practice of body snatching, where recently buried bodies were stolen from their graves and sold to medical schools and anatomists for their use.  It was a lucrative trade, and these resurrectionists, as they were called, became very good at it, often disturbing the grave sights so little that relatives couldn’t tell their loved ones had been taken.  Until the coffin was checked.  The body snatchers were even careful not to steal valuables or clothes from the graves they robbed because the charge of stealing a corpse was only a misdemeanor, with a fairly light punishment, while theft of property was a felony.  Anatomists and medical schools knew fully well where these bodies were coming from, but chose to look the other way for the sake of education and medical advancement.

Meanwhile, the public was horrified by the practice.  Relatives often set up watches over their loved ones’ graves to make sure their final resting places were not violated while the body was still fresh enough to interest resurrectionists.  They began using iron coffins, and mortsafes—a framework of iron bars erected over a grave to deter body snatchers.  The cemeteries near the medical schools in London and Edinburgh increased their own security measures, hiring night watchmen to patrol the grounds and stand guard in watchtowers built specifically for that purpose. 

The practice of body snatching was so common that in 1831 one gang of grave robbers confessed to stealing as many as 1000 bodies over twelve years.  Anatomists paid approximately 8-10 guineas per corpse, depending on how fresh the body was and whether it had any interesting abnormalities.  It was such a profitable trade, that enterprising criminals soon sought to take advantage of it, the most famous of whom were Burke and Hare, two laborers in Edinburgh. 

Rather than risk being caught while performing the difficult labor of disinterring bodies from the heavily guarded local cemeteries, they began inviting victims to their lodging house, plying them with alcohol, and smothering them to death.  They then sold the bodies to the Surgeons’ Hall at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, namely to well-known anatomist and lecturer Dr. Robert Knox.  Burke and Hare were caught in November of 1828, but not before they murdered sixteen people.  The case lacked sufficient evidence, so Hare was convinced to testify against his partner, and escaped prosecution.  Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, and afterward his body was transported to the University of Edinburgh to be publicly dissected.  His death mask, skeleton, and several articles made from his tanned skin, including a book cover, are on display at the university’s Surgeons’ Hall Museum.  Dr. Knox escaped prosecution, but public opinion turned sharply against him for his part in providing incentive for the murders. 

After the trial of Burke and Hare, citizens in London and Edinburgh were panicked by the idea that similar enterprising criminals might be at work, murdering hapless citizens and selling their bodies to anatomists and medical schools.  Medical schools were forced to pay closer attention to where their bodies were procured, and legislation reform became a necessity.

Do you think the anatomists and medical schools quest for better medical treatment and scientific understanding justified the resurrectionists’ actions?  Or should they have been held more accountable?

Anna Lee Huber was born and raised in a small town in Ohio.  She is a graduate of Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN, where she majored in Music and minored in Psychology.  The Anatomist's Wife has been hailed as “…a riveting debut…” and will be released by Berkley Publishing on November 6th, 2012.  She currently lives in Indiana with her husband and troublemaking tabby cat.  When not hard at work on her next novel, she enjoys reading, singing, travel, and spending time with her family. Visit her website at
Or find her on Facebook at: AnnaLeeHuber
Or Twitter at AnnaLeeHuber
·         Calton Cemetery: A view over the wall into Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh – notice the watchtower
·         Lawnmarket at night: A view down Lawnmarket from Castle Hill at night
·         Old Town Edinburgh: A view of Old Town from New Town
·    Surgeons Hall: 19th century drawing of the Surgeons’ Hall at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
  .  St Giles Cathedral: St Giles Cathedral, at one end of the historical Lawnmarket, where Burke was executed

 Anna Lee will be giving away a copy of The Anatomist's Wife to one of our lucky commenters, so be sure to come back on Friday when I'll announce the winner!