Undertaker Violet Harper and her husband are attending the long-anticipated opening of Egypt’s new Suez Canal, which has been masterminded by the brilliant French engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Fireworks, galas, and canal cruises are all part of the planned festivities at stops along the way.
But when two men are found murdered, it becomes obvious that there are malevolent forces among the revelers…who will stop at nothing to keep Violet from discovering the truth.
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The genesis for this story came when I was writing Stolen Remains, the 2nd book in the Lady of Ashes series. In it, Violet solves a mystery peripherally involving the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. At the same time, my editor was encouraging me to periodically move Violet around, so that she isn’t “stuck” in London. “Well,” I thought. “Why not send Violet to Egypt? Imagine how much murder and mayhem there could be at a big international event like that!”
Thus was the story born, out of my editor’s request to send Violet out of town.
I must confess, I knew very little about the Suez Canal (that’s someplace in the Middle East, right?) before I began writing Stolen Remains, but between that book and now A Grave Celebration, I have learned what a remarkable achievement it was; one that would have major international ramifications through the 21st century.
The concept of a canal through Egypt that would connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea had been attempted as far back as ancient times, then revived by Napoleon, whose surveyors wrongly miscalculated the two sea levels and abandoned the idea.
It was really the efforts of the brilliant French diplomat and engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, that resulted in a canal successfully being dredged through the area.
The canal’s building was fraught with problems: cost overruns, staffing issues, enormous egos, political interference…in other words, just a typical government project!
Did you know…?
- The Statue of Liberty was initially intended for the Suez Canal. In 1869, the sculptor of the statue approached de Lesseps and the Egyptian government and tried to convince them to let him build a sculpture called “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia.” It would be the statue of a woman in Egyptian peasant robes, holding a massive torch, which would serve as a lighthouse guiding ships that entered the canal. He was not taken up on his offer, but the sculptor, Bartholdi, didn’t give up on his idea, and eventually another version was unveiled in New York Harbor in 1886.
- De Lesseps tried—and failed—to build the Panama Canal. After the great achievement of the Suez Canal, he turned his attention to cutting through the Isthmus of Panama in Central America. Alas, the disease-ridden jungle proved more than he could manage, and the project descended into chaos; not helped by the fact that a massive fraud and conspiracy scandal was triggered when de Lesseps’ canal company failed in 1889 after burning through $260 million with no results.