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U. of I. anthropologist's latest whodunits include facts from the field

"The House of the Sphinx" cover

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"The House of the Sphinx" is the fourth mystery by anthropologist Sarah Wisseman, who draws on her professional – and personal – experiences.

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3/30/2010| Sharita Forrest, Arts Editor | 217-244-1072;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In Sarah Wisseman’s third and fourth installments of her Lisa Donahue mystery series, the archaeologist and amateur sleuth becomes embroiled in two very different types of whodunits.

"The Fall of Augustus" cover
"The Fall of Augustus," Sarah Wisseman's third book in her mystery series, takes place at Boston University. | Photo courtesy Wings ePress Inc.

In  “The Fall of Augustus” (Wings ePress Inc., 2009), the third book in the series, Donahue becomes the interim director of the museum at Boston University after her boss is murdered, and soon finds herself juggling jealous colleagues, a personal nemesis from her past, mysterious deaths and disappearances, the apparent thefts of several of the museum’s most valuable artifacts and problems with her stepson.

The fourth novel, “The House of the Sphinx” (Hilliard-Harris, 2009), is a murder mystery with a post-9/11 twist – bioterrorism. During a belated honeymoon trip to Egypt, Donahue and her husband James become entangled in a terrorist plot to kill millions of people by contaminating Western tourists with the long dormant smallpox virus.

Wisseman teaches an anthropology course and is director of the Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials at the University of Illinois. And like the heroine in her novels, Wisseman is married to a physician, loves to travel and relishes solving mysteries. Woven into her novels are details about ancient Greek vases, mummies and Egyptian culture that Wisseman gleaned from her own experience, research and travels.

Wisseman’s research primarily focuses on archaeometry, with interests in provenance studies and ceramic technologies. She has participated in excavations in Israel, Italy and the U.S. In 1990, she coordinated the U. of I.’s investigation into its Egyptian mummy and wrote about the project in her book “The Virtual Mummy” (U. of I. Press, 2003), which garnered a “Best of the Best From the University Presses” award from the American Library Association.

“Bound for Eternity,” (iUniverse, 2005), Wisseman’s first mystery novel in the Donahue series, also was based upon her research on the same mummy. The novel was a finalist in St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic competition for Best First Traditional Mystery.

The bioterrorism angle in “The House of the Sphinx” came from a suggestion by Wisseman’s husband, Charlie, a retired pathologist who once worked for the Centers for Disease Control. The research for the book, which included exploring the history of smallpox and concerns that the Soviet Union’s stores of the virus may have fallen into the hands of terrorists, “took me in some very interesting directions,” Wisseman said. “There’s a lot of tantalizing information out there.”

Although Wisseman said she is eager to return to the mystery series, she currently is writing a historical novel set in Champaign County during Prohibition. The plot centers on a physician and amateur archaeologist who sometimes collects his fees in the forms of illegal liquor and artifacts as well as cash.

Accordingly, “The Fall of Augustus” ended with a teaser that hinted to readers that Champaign might figure in the plot of the fifth Lisa Donahue mystery.

Wisseman is among the authors who have been invited to participate in a panel discussion on the topic of changing the settings in mystery series at the 23rd annual Malice Domestic mystery writers’ convention, to be held in Washington, D.C., April 29-May 2. Wisseman also will speak on the topic of “Archaeology and Murder” at the Illinois Club’s annual spring luncheon to be held in Champaign on April 28.

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