Novelists exist in a “what if?” world. Every activity, every random encounter, every stranger walking through a parking lot is fair game for a writer of fiction. So, too, every movie watched and book read becomes the genesis of an idea. A strange synthesis of this happened to me a couple of years ago. I watched two movies and a read a book in one week, and by the week’s end I had a “what if?” story going around in my head.
I saw “Lawrence of Arabia” and “A Dangerous Method” and read “Murder on the Orient Express.” The three merged into an adventure that started in a psychologist’s clinic, moved through a murder on a train and took place in the wild deserts of Syria. I read T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom to get a feel for the time and place and read British Petroleum and the Red Line Agreement to get the facts about the historical and mystery elements of the novel. Then I was ready. I put my hands together, cracked my knuckles, wiggled all ten fingers, and then fired up the keyboard.
In Blue Damask, I tell the story of an Austrian woman who finds the strength and power to overcome uncontrollable events by using her wits, and sometimes her wiles, to outsmart her adversaries by using their own weaknesses against them.
Elsa Schluss spent the Great War in a field hospital as a surgical nurse, sewing together the mangled bodies of soldiers. She worked long hours under trying conditions without complaint, yet doctors considered her a menial worker, not a professional woman with valuable skills. After the war, Elsa entered the University of Vienna to study psychology. She had learned that many wounded soldiers fell apart when the stitches were removed. Now she continues to find it difficult to be taken seriously by the men who rule academia, and her troubles are compounded when her advisor tells her he does not think her dissertation will be accepted as written.
The story opens as an Englishman in a straightjacket is dumped to the floor of her advisor’s clinic. The British government is so eager to have this man lucid and functioning rationally that they have sent Field Agent Marshall to get it done any way he can. The patient must be brought back from the brink of insanity while traveling by train and ship and car from Vienna to Damascus.
Marshall hires Elsa to take on this challenge, and what at first seems like an excellent case study for her thesis, turns into a wild adventure in the wastelands of Syria during the violent Arab Revolt of 1921. More is at stake than a student’s paper, a man’s sanity, and a field agent’s career. Elsa finds that she is in the midst of multiple mysteries and she must use her wits to sort them out in order to keep herself and her patient alive and get them both safely back to Vienna.
I like how one of my reviewers described her: “the reader is treated to watching Elsa’s transformation from a prim, exquisite psychologist to a ready-for-anything heroine covered with dirt and blood and packing a semi-automatic pistol and willing to use it.”
Annemarie Banks, February 24, 2014