Sunday, April 28, 2013

Indiana Jones in Africa -- a guest post from author Susan C. Shea

I'm delighted to introduce author/friend, Susan C. Shea! Susan writes the Dani O’Rourke Mystery series. The first is Murder in the Abstract and the sequel is The King’s Jar, publishing May 1. You can read more about her at

Even before I stood over two super-sized shipping containers, checking off a list that included everything from Cal tee shirts and collection baggies to Kool Aid packets and malaria medicine, I was fascinated by the stories of scientist explorers who went to Africa to look for evidence of a time before recorded history when large animals roamed a very different landscape, and primates descended from the trees and began to develop rudimentary hunting and foraging skills.

Imagine my excitement when I was hired as ED of the non-profit started by the scientist who had previously found “Lucy,” the 3.2 million-year old fossil that changed the way anthropologists viewed human evolution. Suddenly, I was working at the heart of paleo (old) anthropology, with a group of men and women who spent months at a time in the hot, dry, ancient  river beds of Africa’s Great Rift Valley sifting crusty dirt in search of tiny fragments of fossilized bone, and guarded by tribesmen with old Russian Kalashnikov rifles.

I was surprised with an award at the annual Institute dinner at the Metropolitan Club in New York, 1997. The Club features in THE KING'S JAR, albeit in slightly disguised form. With Bruce Ludwig, Donald Johanson and Yves Coppens. Yves was the head of the French Musee des Hommes in Paris, and a fellow anthropologist with Don. Bruce was a member of the Institute's board, one of a handful who were also members of the Explorer's Club, and quite a dashing presence! Photo credit: Anita & Steve Shevett

My sweetheart bought me a pith helmet to celebrate, but the scientists and post-docs who went to the field wore less glamorous, wide brimmed, floppy hats. They wore khaki shorts and hiking boots and the smart ones wore long sleeve dress shirts to fend off the intense sun. They looked out for snakes and large biting bugs when they went to the outdoor lav, ate Ethiopian injera and wat (goat stew on a pale, spongy bread) rather more often than ideal, and went on to find 200 small fragments of what would turn out to be a remarkably complete fossilized skull of Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s species).

That skull brought the national morning news programs to our headquarters at four in the morning, national and international reporters from every strong newspaper, magazine, and wire service to interview the scientists, another National Geographic cover, the cover of Time, Newsweek, Scientific American…you get the drift.

It wasn't all hard work. Renowned photographer of African peoples and cultures Carol Beckwith (half of the noted team of Beckwith and Angela Fisher, authors of African Ceremonies and frequent National Geographic contributors) at a costume party in Napa. That's my Tim holding on to her leg! The scientists and people associated with the Institute became close and loyal friends due, I think, to the kind of intense effort they made, often without any assurance of success or comfort along the way. That they accepted me and drew me in as a friend was - and is - a great gift.

I never got to the dig site. Too busy raising money and keeping things running smoothly at home so the scientists could focus on doing what they did best. But when it came time to plan the next Dani O’Rourke mystery, I knew I wanted to incorporate some of that charged atmosphere and Indiana Jones romance of exploration into the book. I tried to weave it together with my own history as a fundraiser, courter of millionaires, billionaires and assorted overly-entitled people. And that’s where The King’s Jar landed, here in the States, with a cast of characters deeply influence by the demands of working in present-day Africa in search of the origins of humankind.



  1. This is so interesting, Susan. I actually had no idea that The King's Jar was related to the Rift Valley ... Can't wait to read it!

  2. Jenny, the story is a step removed from the real place and discipline. I created a little country called Kenobia, and my fictional characters are paleo-archaeologists. Wanted to make sure no one thought my real life colleagues were involved in any underhanded dealings! Hope you enjoy it - let me know what you think. Thanks for dropping by.

  3. Great post, Susan. I knew that you worked with these paleo rock stars, but it's nice to read some of the details.

  4. Wonderful post, now in Addis Ababa Waiting for Lucy. I believe she is in the Skies flying here already...don

  5. Dani's back and about time! Can't wait to read it - great post Susan xo de Paris

  6. Between your Metropolitan Club honors and Explorer's Club admirers, you've covered most of the exciting adventure venues in NYC. All that's left is for "The King's Jar" to conquer the Edgars! Terrific post into a very interesting life.

  7. Awesome post! I mentioned it to my readers in my weekly newsletter, Please let me know if you'd like a copy. Cheers,