Yearning for her former life as an archaeologist, Australian librarian Dr Elizabeth Pimms is struggling with a job she doesn't want and a family she both loves and resents. A royal Olmec cemetery is discovered deep in the Mexican jungle, containing the earliest writing in all the Americas. Dr Pimms is elated to join the team investigating the ancient skeletons found on site. Triumph is short-lived, however, as Elizabeth's position is threatened by a volatile excavation director, contradictory evidence, and hostile colleagues. With everything working against her, will Dr Pimms find the cause of death for a 3,000-year-old athlete and those buried with her?
With the archaeological intrigue of Elizabeth Peters, forensic insight of Kathy Reichs, and the comfort of a cosy mystery, Olmec Obituary is the first novel in a fascinating new series: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth. Really cold cases.
Descended from families strung along the Atlantic fringe, including Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Spain, LJM Owen currently lives in Canberra, Australia. Trained in archaeology and librarianship, with a PhD in palaeogenetics, L.J.'s interests include writing, ancient cultures and existentialism. L.J.'s first novel, Olmec Obituary, opens the archaeological mystery series 'Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth'. Recipes featured in the series are tested under strict feline supervision.
Author: LJM Owen
Question: How would you describe Olmec Obituary?
LJM Owen: Olmec Obituary is the first novel in a new Australian crime fiction series: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth. It's the journey of an archaeologist/librarian who solves ancient mysteries from across the globe, with plenty of forensic science, culinary exploration and historic trivia along the way.
So far readers of all ages, from teens to retirees, have provided very positive feedback, with an equal male/female split across all age groups. Those who enjoy archaeological, historic or forensic crime fiction – similar to Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series or Kathy Reichs' TV series -Bones' – consume the book then demand the next one! Younger women seem to identify with the main character, and men who are technically-minded or normally read sci-fi, fantasy or steampunk have been fascinated by the forensic detail in Dr Pimms' investigation. The series is cosy crime fiction, so no swearing or sex scenes, but I do caution parents of younger readers that there are adult concepts.
Question: How did you come up with the idea of Olmec Obituary?
LJM Owen: My original inspiration for the series was a sense of wanting to give back.
Like many quiet, studious children I never quite fit into the world around me. I spent much of my childhood escaping into storyworlds created by others, where people lived, thought, and interacted differently to the society around them. I learnt from fictional characters that it was okay question, to think, to make decisions other than those expected.
As an adult - tired, stressed and overworked - I continued to snatch an hour or two in those otherworlds to recharge my batteries. As a writer I realised I wanted to construct another space for readers to escape to.
I figured the most sensible course of action was to draw on what I knew. I have a degree in archaeology, a degree in library management, and a PhD in palaeogenetics, so felt most comfortable writing about these subjects. I could also indulge my love affair with other cultures, past and present.
Like many, I am intrigued by the classic whodunit. I love to pit my reasoning skills against the fictional detective of the hour.
And so Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth was born. My hope is, ultimately, that the Intermillennial Sleuth chronicles become another place of refuge for readers everywhere.
Question: What research went into Olmec Obituary?
LJM Owen: As I have a background in archaeology and librarianship I incorporated years of study in forensic science, human genetics, and the inner workings of the world's libraries into preparing to write the series. I then threw myself into reading everything I could on Olmec archaeology and cultural reconstructions for Book One. I was captivated by their magnificent ritual complexes, colourful festivals, colossal stone heads, fascinating mythology, and the Mesoamerican obsession with corn, -the ballgame' and fertility.
One day, during my research, my eyes fell on a photo of a female ballplayer statue and I was lost. The way I describe the model in the novel is exactly what I thought the first time I saw her:
'It looked like a figurine based on a B-grade movie about topless women competing in roller-skate derbies, right down to the rounded crash helmet with side straps. How bizarre! It might have been a three-thousand year-old depiction of a woman playing a gruelling and violent forerunner to basketball, but it would also have been right at home amongst modern movie merchandise."
I was fascinated by this complex and difficult sport, the players, the rules, and the female athletes who competed with and against males and won. I wanted to create a story that shone a light on this tiny moment in collective human history. It's possible that I'm currently Australia's foremost authority on female Olmec ballplayers!
Question: What is the best thing about creating a character like Dr Elizabeth Pimms?
LJM Owen: In creating Elizabeth and the people around her I was able to combine many personal interests and give readers an alternative kind of female lead.
Many fictional female heroes are extroverted, feisty and brash. In real life most of the heroes I've met were quiet, thoughtful people who worked diligently behind the scenes. I wanted to explore the lives of more reasoned, unsung personalities who create the foundation for most civilisations.
I've long been concerned by the patriarchal, not to say condescending, interpretation of ancient civilisations that took place for the first century or more of modern archaeology. So many textbooks were written with chapters about kings and nobles and warriors, with a tiny dismissive section on -women' tacked on at the end about raising children and cooking. So much information about the incredible diversity of roles, responsibilities, and contributions of females was ignored.
One of the underlying themes I am weaving through the series is the position and treatment of women in different societies. Amongst the Olmecs, for example, women competed in the incredibly athletic and dangerous Mesoamerican ballgame – smacking a very heavy ball of solid rubber around a stone ballcourt with their hips – competing in mixed teams and against noble males. Very few modern sports combine women and men into teams in the same manner.
I also have a personal love of libraries and librarians. In many parts of the world – both modern and ancient – librarians are (or were) a revered occupation. Unfortunately this is not so in many sectors of contemporary Western society. The librarians I've met are diverse, dedicated and fiercely professional; people who put their hearts and minds into keeping the wheels of truth, discovery and imagination turning.
So in creating the character of Dr Elizabeth Pimms I was able to explore and address all these issues and more.
Question: What's next, for you?
LJM Owen: Book Two! The next instalment in the Intermillennial Sleuth series, Mayan Mendacity, sees Dr Pimms contend with the maimed skeleton of a Mayan warrior, a vengeful Tikal Queen, the Phantom of the Stacks and an intruder in her phrenic library. I can't wait to finish writing it!
Interview by Brooke Hunter