Mysteries of Sienna
By Guest Blogger APRIL SMITH
April Smith is my homie--we’re both L.A. residents--so I get to run into her in person, usually in the presence of bad banquet food. She is lovely, chic, well-dressed and eloquent, and although she is petite, you’d no more mess with her than you would with Ana Grey, her protagonist. April’s North of Montana (one of my favorite titles ever) launched her onto the literary crime scene and she’s never left. Also, we both love cleaning out closets, which is just the sort of fact that makes her the perfect guest on The Lipstick Chronicles. A warm welcome, please, and pass the hard rolls. ~Harley
When I tell readers the new FBI Special Agent Ana Grey thriller, White Shotgun (Knopf, June, 2011), takes place in Siena, their eyes light up. Nobody asks how an FBI agent based in Los Angeles would end up in Italy – they just want to go there, too! A strong sense of place is pivotal to fiction, which is why I travel to every location that I write about. Nothing is fresher than the first sensual impressions of a city, and the spontaneous discoveries that later become plot points -- but Siena was different. Siena inhabited me. It was as if the arcane words carved into church walls and the ancient rituals of the Palio were literary connections just waiting to happen, as I worked through the story. Or maybe a collective unconsciousness does connect us all, and all it takes is some fine Brunello and fresh mozzarella to unlock the symbolism.
I didn’t just stumble into Siena; I went there a mission. It began with a call from my son, Benjamin Brayfield, who was then on a college semester abroad program.
“Mom,” he said, “What if a crime happened during Palio?”
“That would be a book,” I said.
His Italian roommates had been filling his head with tales of a crazy horse race called Il Palio, coming up in July. How crazy? Jockeys ride bareback and beat each other with whips made of calf phalluses. Sixty thousands tourists jam into an ancient piazza, and every year horses are injured, riders thrown, and ancient rivalries erupt in violence. As the setting for a thriller, Siena was a no-brainer. Besides great atmosphere, there was the potential for a strong story about the current threat of international crime networks, like ‘Ndragheta, which controls the distribution of cocaine in Europe.
My first encounter with the mysteries of the Siena was a decapitated head. St. Catherine, along with St. Francis of Assisi, is one of Italy’s two patron saints. She was born in Siena but died in Rome in 1380 -- and most of her body is buried there. The Sienese wanted their beloved saint back, but settled for smuggling her head out in a bag. When they were stopped by Roman guards, they prayed to St. Catherine, and a miracle occurred. The bag was full of rose petals. When it was opened in Siena, the head had manifested again. Today it is preserved in a glass case in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena -- a gruesome relic without a nose in a glass case. I was spooked, and so is Ana Grey, when she discovers the hand of a saint preserved in her sister’s home.
If this were historical fiction, I could have spent months following in the bloody footsteps of the many conquerors of Siena -- from the Romans to the penultimate siege by Florence in 1230 when donkeys and dung were catapulted over the walls (see where I’m going with craziness?) – but luckily there was plenty of drama for a crime novelist in the blood rivalries between the seventeen contradas, or city-states, of Siena. Their fierce territoriality reminded me of gangland Los Angeles, and put me in touch with the primitive forces of love and hate, which become a foil for Ana Grey’s cool analytic thinking, when she is faced with the most primitive act of all -- the brutal kidnap of a family member.
One of the most intriguing mysteries is the Sator Square, a palindrome of Latin words that can be read in four directions:
Carvings dating from 7 AD have been found all over Europe -- including the wall of the main cathedral in Siena. Borrowing a little Da Vinci Code magic, I used the Sator Square to imply that almost mystical forces brought Ana and her long-lost sister, Cecilia, together. “It means, God holds the plough, but you turn the furrows,” Cecilia explains. “There are two kinds of fate -- the actions of God and our own responsibility for our lives. Two kinds of fate have brought us together.”
And brought me to Siena.
April Smith is the author of the bestselling FBI Special Agent Ana Grey novels, NORTH OF MONTANA and GOOD MORNING, KILLER (“Critic’s Choice” -- PEOPLE Magazine) as well as BE THE ONE, a thriller about the only female baseball scout in the major leagues, all published by Alfred A. Knopf. Her third Ana Grey novel, titled JUDAS HORSE, was released on Valentine’s Day, 2008. April is also a working TV writer/producer and has been nominated for three Emmy Awards and three Writers Guild Awards. Her recent screen credits include an adaptation of two Stephen King short stories from his collection, NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES, for TNT, and an adaptation of Nora Roberts’ MONTANA SKY, which aired on Lifetime earlier this year. Please visit www.aprilsmith.net.