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Ceremony, Author's Note Topic 2: Invasive Bloodsuckers

· Extras,Murders of Substance

Ceremony (Coming August 17) is the first mystery novel I've written that's not a Fenway Stevenson book. It's the first book in a series about a brilliant forensic toxicologist with a nose for trouble and the disgraced federal investigator who gets one last chance for redemption. Together, they solve some of the most baffling poisoning murders across the nation. I had to do a lot of research for Ceremony, and the stuff that made it into the book is about 80% real, honest-to-goodness fact, and about 20% fictionalized versions of events or real places. This is the second blog post in a series of the behind-the-curtain research that went into making Ceremony.

Topic 2: Lampreys and Freshwater Sciences

They’ve been called “the little vampires of the Great Lakes,” and sea lampreys almost destroyed the fishing industry in the Upper Midwest of the United States in the 1950s. Many scientists believe sea lampreys were the first truly destructive invasive species in North America.

Lampreys are a primitive fish—scientists believe the species are at least 360 million years old. They’re jawless and they have a round mouth with a bunch of teeth. And they stick themselves on the side of a trout or salmon and suck their blood.

They’re kind of gross.

So why am I writing about lampreys in a mystery blog?

As you may have figured out, lampreys play an important role in Ceremony, the first book in my new Murders of Substance series. Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city of about half a million people on the shore of Lake Michigan, Ceremony's murder victim is a university researcher in a freshwater science science lab, studying—you guessed it—lampreys. The head of a local fishing association emerges as a suspect—and he hates lampreys. An environmental activist also falls under suspicion—and she hates invasive species.

There are native lamprey species in the area—silver lampreys are the most common—but sea lampreys are an invasive species. Not only did they outcompete the native silver lampreys, they actually kill their hosts—a single adult sea lamprey kills 40 to 50 fish.

In the 1950s, a lampricide called TFM was discovered. It killed lamprey ammocoetes (i.e., the lamprey babies) without causing damage to the salmon and trout in the Great Lakes. Sea lampreys are considered “under control” now. In a mystery novel about a poisoning murder, one might conclude the TFM plays a good-sized role in the book, too (hint, hint).

While The Fenway Stevenson Mysteries have a strong political undercurrent, the Murders of Substance books rely heavily on scientific plausibility. So, as I mentioned in the blogpost about the St. John of Arc Chapel at Marquette University in Milwaukee, I channeled my inner Michael Chrichton and James Michener (both masters of weaving scientific and historical fact with riveting fiction) and  spent hours researching topics for this series. 

For example, the fictional university’s freshwater science lab is loosely based on a real program: the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences is one of only three graduate school in the world—and the only one in the USA—dedicated solely to the study of freshwater. The real-life building is located about a mile south of where the fictional lab is located in Ceremony (the fictional lab replaces a riverside tiki lounge). The more I dug into the research, the more fascinated I became: the university not only solves issues regarding invasive species like the sea lamprey, but also works on projects to provide more clean drinking water to the human population on our planet. I barely even scratch the surface of all the cool freshwater science stuff in Ceremony—mostly because it doesn’t have much to do with the murder. But it was really fun to learn something new.

I hope you find the details and the research enrich your experience when you read Ceremony. I’ve uncovered a ton of fascinating information, and hope to discover even more for future books in the series! 

If nothing else, I’ll be an even more formidable opponent come trivia night.