|Mary Manhein tries to make fiction stranger than her day job|
In the few morning hours before her husband wakes and her pets are begging for breakfast, the Bone Lady rises, puts pen to paper and scribes stories of death, crime and scientific investigation.
Whether she’s writing about real people or fictional characters, Mary Manhein, director of the LSU FACES Laboratory, applies her expertise in forensic anthropology to her writing and has recently published her first fiction novel, Floating Souls: The Canal Murders.
The book follows forensic anthropologist Maggie Andrepont, who is called to work with human remains in both New Orleans and Venice, Italy. Andrepont must help solve a series of murders in the Crescent City while also assisting with a mystery surrounding bodies found beneath the Venetian clock tower. She travels back and forth, visits each city’s canals, works through personal challenges and encounters romantic intrigue.
This is the beginning of what Manhein says she hopes will be a successful series, following the protagonist through its expected future installments.
Margaret Media, located in Donaldsonville, published Floating Souls. But Manhein says it’s too early to say if the company will be publishing more of her novels.
Though she has worked in forensic anthropology for more than 30 years, Manhein began her undergraduate studies in English and says she has always wanted to use her creative writing roots to pen a novel. She says she hopes to eventually become a full-time author.
Manhein has written two non-fiction accounts of her work and has used her writing to identify people whose remains are brought to the lab and to illustrate what she does at LSU. However, Manhein says fiction is more challenging because she is responsible for creating each character’s feelings, motivations and conversations.
Coming from a family of storytellers, Manheim says she is always looking to find a resolution for the people who are affected by the tragedies in her work, and fiction writing allows her to weave tales with a satisfying conclusion.
“It’s different in that it’s not my work, it’s not real, and I just like to tell stories,” she says. “Telling stories in reality—true stories—and then combining the knowledge that I’ve learned and the experience I’ve gained from work in spinning a lighter yarn is what I would like to think this is.”
As the setting for part of Floating Souls, Manhein says she finds New Orleans’ architecture, the people and the city’s eclectic underbelly fascinating and suitable for this gothic mystery.
“You can become lost down there, you can become a stranger down there, and I like the fact that you can just be there and no one knows you,” she says. “I love it all.”
She recognizes that people find the darker aspects of her work at LSU intriguing, and she hopes they’ll find the same appeal—the curiosity in human nature and a need to find justice in crime, as she describes it—in her fiction.
“It’s the puzzle of the mystery of what happened to someone and how it happened,” she says. “I think it does entertain—in many ways, it is a morbid side of humans, but it’s also about the solving of a puzzle.”
Manhein has begun writing the second book in the series, Murders in the Cities of the Dead, which will draw from her work in historic archeology and focus on New Orleans cemeteries. She hopes to complete the book in the next year or two.
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