THE KEEPSAKE on sale today!

In all the hubbub and activity of getting my mom moved and settled in here in Maine, I’ve scarcely had time to think about the other big event this week, the event I’ve been waiting for all year: the release of my new book, THE KEEPSAKE.

It goes on sale today. Over at Murderati I’ve just blogged about what it feels like to have a new book come out. Hop on over there, if you’d like to know what neurotic writers (or maybe all writers?) experience with the release of a new book.

And here’s a piece I wrote for about THE KEEPSAKE, in case you’re wondering how on earth I happened to write a book about such weird archaeological topics:

Everybody loves mummies, and I’m no exception. I was an anthropology student in college, and I spent many hours in the Stanford University Museum basement, examining and cataloguing boxes of human remains from North American burial sites. But ancient Egypt has held my deepest fascination, and I don’t think I’m alone in this fascination. In any museum, you’ll find that everyone seems to crowd around the Egyptian mummy exhibits. We all want to know about mummies, and how they were made.

I discovered that there are about 250 mummies in the United States, many of them brought back as souvenirs by American tourists over a hundred years ago. In the 1800’s, you could buy a mummy in Egypt for only five dollars. I’m astonished and appalled that anyone would consider human remains as a souvenir, but in those days, Americans and Europeans had little respect for the dead of Egypt. And so they brought them home. They’d hold unwrapping parties for their friends, peeling away the linen strips to reveal the corpses beneath. Countless mummies were exported, and here in America, they ended up in the most unlikely of places. In antique shops, in attics, in freak shows. And in museums.

In the early days of Egyptology, mummies were certainly not treated with respect. But modern Egyptologists no longer unwrap them to study them; instead, mummies are studied using noninvasive techniques such as X-rays and CT scans, which give us an intimate view of the corpses without damaging them. I had the privilege of watching just such a CT scan myself, where the secrets of a mummy were revealed — everything from his sex to his age to the cause of death.

This is where the idea of THE KEEPSAKE came from. What if a Boston museum discovers a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy in the basement? What if they proceeded to study it, and sent it to a hospital for a CT scan? What if they discover something shocking: a bullet in the leg?

Suddenly, this becomes a homicide case. It draws the atatention of Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles, who must track down a killer who has obscure archaeological knowledge. A killer who has been preserving his victims using gruesome ancient techniques.

THE KEEPSAKE allowed me to delve into some of the most bizarre and frightening ancient rituals. Did you ever wonder how the Egyptians mummified a body? Or how headhunters could shrink a human head to a fraction of its size? This killer knows.

And by the end of THE KEEPSAKE, so will you.

Falling back on what comforts us

El Indio Restaurant, San Diego

El Indio Restaurant, San Diego

You’re looking at an icon from my childhood: the El Indio Restaurant on India Street in San Diego. For as long as I can remember, visiting El Indio with my dad was the highlight of the week. We’d buy their beef taquitos, garnished with shredded lettuce and salsa. They were rolled up in butcher paper, six to a packet, and I remember how eagerly I’d tear open the packet, releasing their savory fragrance. Whenever I bit into one, all was right with the world. Wherever I’ve lived in the world, wherever I’ve traveled, when I was under stress, I’d find myself craving one of those taquitos.

Last week, reeling from the emotional turmoil of emptying out my mom’s house in San Diego, I desperately needed an El Indio fix. So that’s where I headed.

The place has changed, of course. It used to be merely a tortilla factory that served food on the side; now it’s grown and has become so popular that the line of customers often stretches out the door. It’s even made it onto the culinary radar of Food TV.

But it will always be my El Indio, and a reminder of just how powerful childhood memories can be — especially memories of food. Food, I think, is what culture is really all about. Dishes that our mothers cooked for us. The particular melange of spices in our mothers’ kitchens.

When I write my books, I find myself often using food to evoke mood or character or relationships. Jane Rizzoli sits in her childhood kitchen and marvels at her mother’s exquisite cooking. Maura Isles sits alone and depressed at her kitchen table and dines on gin and a grilled cheese sandwich. A harried doctor slaps together a dinner of scrambled eggs. What we eat — and the care with which we prepare it — speaks volumes about our feelings at that moment.

And so, while I sat at El Indio last week, emotionally wrung out by the emotional demands of my San Diego visit, I found that biting into a taquito was almost a desperate act, precisely the sort of therapy that the daughter of a chef would crave.

Forget drugs; all I require is salsa.