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Release date: October 13th 2015
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
A Golden Brooch, A Shiny Idea: The Hidden Treasures in Research
One of the first things I do when planning a mystery is to start looking for trouble. By that I mean plotting a crime. (On the page, of course!) And because I like to read and write complex mysteries, involving networks of people, I typically end up with more than one crime, and then I have to make the crimes intersect.
I knew early on that one of the crimes in BLUE VOYAGE was going to involve theft and smuggling. I didn’t want to do fine art because I had already written about stolen van Gogh prints in TOKYO HEIST. What fascinated me about Turkey was the fact that it has been called a “plunderer’s paradise” because of its abundance of antiquities, left behind or buried with the succession of civilizations who have occupied that land since ancient times.
The more I delved into the history of Turkey’s treasures, the more fascinated I became. Construction and demolition projects in Istanbul frequently unearth antiquities. Ancient relics also surface regularly at police stations and airports, as they are captured in transit by smugglers—and sometimes by unwitting carriers. Turkey has very strict laws about transporting artifacts out of the country. Foreign tourists have found old coins or figurines on beaches, stuck them in their suitcases as objects of curiosity, and found themselves detained at airports, questioned, and in some cases imprisoned. I also learned that many museum storage facilities have exceeded their capacity to store all of the artifacts that have surfaced from foiled smuggling attempts, and the overflow artifacts are sometimes stored at police stations.
I’ve always thought that being detained at an airport or a border, caught with something you weren’t supposed to have, and possibly put in a foreign prison as a result, would be one of the most frightening experiences I could imagine. When I imagine feeling powerless, unable to communicate effectively, maybe unable to get legal help, I get chills. So I put my teen character, Zan, in that very situation when something turns up in her backpack that isn’t supposed to be there.
The most intriguing aspect I unearthed about Turkey’s treasures, however, was one treasure in particular: The Karun Treasure (also known as the Lydian Hoard). The Karun Treasure is a collection of 363 artifacts dating back to the 7th century BC, and which can be traced back to a province in what is now western Turkey. These artifacts were looted from graves, sold to middlemen sometime in the 1960s, and smuggled to New York, where they sat in the basement of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art for years. They were eventually displayed as Greek relics at an exhibit in the 1980s, where a suspicious viewer felt they were instead from Turkey. A prolonged legal battle began, and eventually the objects were repatriated to Turkey. (A more detailed account of this process can be found in an excellent book called Loot, by Sharon Waxman, or you can read this shorter article by Waxman, which also profiles a Turkish journalist who was personally involved in returning these objects to Turkey). The objects were then displayed in a small museum in Turkey.
The showcase piece of the Karun Treasure was a golden brooch with a winged horse. I gazed at numerous photos of it, taken in by its strange beauty, as well as by scandal behind it. This very brooch was later discovered to be a fake. The original had been stolen by the museum director – a man who was part of the repatriation efforts – and sold to some black market buyer to pay off gambling debts. He had replaced it with a well-crafted fake, which viewers had been admiring for years. Now in prison, this former museum director blames his regrettable action on the “curse of the Karun Treasure.” Apparently, bad luck has fallen on anyone involved in transactions with objects from the cache.
This treasure, and this crime, seemed like a gem of an idea for a novel, and I was sure I wanted to write about it. But the more I researched, the more I saw the impossibility. The golden brooch was still in transit. The original was reportedly found in Germany, but has yet to return to Turkey for some reason. In fact, the whole Karun Treasure is going to move soon to a different museum in Turkey. Investigations surrounding the brooch are ongoing, and people involved are still alive. Writing about the golden brooch while so much remained in flux seemed like a daunting task. Too daunting.
So I took my creative license as a fiction writer and invented a three hundred and sixty-fourth object of the Karun Treasure – inspired by the real deal, but entirely fictitious. This freed up my writing considerably, and let me just work out my own plot based on my own set of characters.
Looking back, I can see that I did a lot of research that ended up not making it into the book, because of my sharp turn into fiction. Looking ahead, with a new project I’m working on, I can see that I’m doing it again – researching something of which I’ll only use a fraction. Maybe that’s my curse as a fiction writer, this fascination with the research part of the process. But for me, extensive research feels like an excavation process, where I’m digging for treasures – ideas – before I even know what they are. If I’m lucky, I might unearth a good one.