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by Susan Shea
Little did I realize when I sent in an entry to a writing contest decades ago that it would lead me down the long, winding, and wonderful path that I’m on today with the publication of the second Dani O’Rourke mystery, The King’s Jar. The old San Francisco Examiner held a contest to finish a John D. MacDonald novel that was being serialized. I won, joined Mystery Writers of America’s San Francisco chapter, met all these cool people, and decided this was the life for me.
Well, not the bill-paying life. I listened to the advice other MWA members shared: Don’t quit your day job. I was fortunate to work for and with a number of colleges and universities, combining marketing, and fundraising responsibilities. Having grown up in the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, I went to every art museum in every city I touched down in. For a handful of years, I was the ED of a research organization that works in Africa, and I saw close up some of the political issues that arise when working in developing countries and in highly competitive disciplines.
And somewhere in that stew of observations and experiences, the idea for The King’s Jar was born. A priceless artifact, a country that wants it back, the billionaire who owns it, and the museum fundraiser who is caught in the middle of the tug of war when it goes missing.
Africa is always a good place to reference in a mystery. It’s a huge continent, the origin of humankind, full of amazing animal species (well, less so since that same humankind is bent on exterminating much of it), and very little physical evidence of the civilizations that must have existed before recorded history. Africa’s climate is hard on physical objects, and much of sub-Saharan African culture was created from quick-decaying materials like sticks, animal hides, feathers, and unglazed clay. The artifacts that are found are hugely significant and much studied.
The “King’s Jar” is entirely fictional but to make it more likely to have survived and to give it its priceless quality, I added a big twist. The jar is actually Chinese, glazed, from the 12th century. The theory of how it wound up in a burial mound in Africa has made the reputation of the scientist who has had custody of it for 20 years. Sadly, for the story’s sake, I had to kill the scientist early on. And the jar has vanished. Dani O’Rourke, my fundraising protagonist, is facing a black tie dinner for 400 people without the object it’s supposed to celebrate or a good explanation for why the museum she works for can’t lay their hands on it.
And so a mystery is born and an amateur sleuth is set on a path that will put her in conflict with rich and powerful people, in romantic situations with three interesting men, and in search of enough apricot colored roses to decorate 40 tables at a fancy Manhattan club.