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Interview: February 8, 2008

February 8, 2008

Lawrence Goldstone is the co-author (with his wife, Nancy) of OUT OF THE FLAMES and THE FRIAR AND THE CIPHER, two critically acclaimed science history books. In this interview with's Kate Ayers, Goldstone discusses what inspired his first foray into writing novels --- the newly released THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION --- including fascinating figures he came across while researching previous works, as well as his interest in the constant conflict between science and ethics.

He also explains how his background in constitutional studies helped him to accurately portray the book's setting in 1889 Philadelphia and describes how the seemingly disparate genres of fiction and nonfiction have more in common than we think. THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION is a forensic thriller set in Philadelphia in 1889. Two of your previous works, OUT OF THE FLAMES and THE FRIAR AND THE CIPHER, are nonfiction books that deal in much earlier eras. What brought your interest forward in time so many centuries, and why did you decide to turn to fiction?

Lawrence Goldstone: During the research for OUT OF THE FLAMES, Nancy and I came across William Osler, who was an admirer of Michael Servetus and a collector of his works. The more we learned about Dr. Osler, the more we realized that we had stumbled on a man almost as fascinating as Servetus himself. When I learned of the great secret Dr. Osler had embedded in “The Inner History of the Johns Hopkins Hospital” (not opened until 1969), I knew there was a great story there.

BRC: The subject of THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION seems like quite a departure from that of those previous books. Is early forensic medicine a new interest, or has it been developing for some time? Did the recent popularity of the “CSI” shows influence you in any way to write a novel that involves forensics?

LG: The novel is actually more an extension of the nonfiction than a departure. A narrative historian, after all, tries most of all to deliver a portrait of the period about which he or she is writing, a task also required for THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION. The history of science has always fascinated me, particularly the struggles of empiricists against forces of reaction. Anatomy and autopsy played a significant role in OUT OF THE FLAMES, and I was surprised that resistance to the practice was still so strong in 1889. As to "CSI", I don’t watch much television, so perhaps I just got lucky in choosing a subject that is in vogue at the moment. (In my youth, I did watch "Quincy, M. E." however.)

BRC: I suppose one common thread of those earlier books and this current one is the inclusion of ciphers. How did you acquire your knowledge of so many different ones and come to be so curious about them?

LG: In researching THE FRIAR AND THE CIPHER, I did a good bit of reading about the history and evolution of cryptology, and also had the opportunity of speaking with some very knowledgeable people in the field. (I even got some help from NSA.) I found that I was drawn more to the earlier ciphers, which relied less on mathematics and more on logical ingenuity. I thought to include a cipher in my book in an unusual way.

BRC: In your Author’s Note, you say, “The disclosure that, whether for altruistic motives or not, Dr. Osler would keep such secrets gave me the idea for this novel.” Without spoiling any of the mystery, can you say how you developed the idea beyond that?

LG: Anyone interested in the history of science will constantly run up against questions of ethics. Medical ethics, because the exigencies are so immediate, are of particular interest to me.

BRC: You start right off with, “At Christmas 1887, fifteen months before this story began, the world was introduced to a fictional character destined for such immeasurable acclaim that he would overwhelm his creator’s efforts to be done with him.” (Sherlock Holmes, of course.) Are you constantly researching history and devouring stories such that you have the ability to people your novels with real-life figures?

LG: Yes. I believe nothing can transport readers to the era about which they are reading more than a sprinkling of information that sparks recognition. But I’ve discovered that one must be judicious, so as not crush the narrative with minutia.

BRC: THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION has several scenes that depict autopsies being performed. Your acknowledgements point to a lot of invaluable help from many medical types. Did you actually attend any autopsies and spend time observing procedures in hospitals?

LG: I would like to say that, in spirit of copious research, I sat in on an actual autopsy. However, Dr. Carver, Connecticut’s CME, did not offer and, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, I did not press the point.

BRC: How about The Tombs? Did you take a tour of that prison?

LG: I had been through The Tombs about 25 years ago, when I worked on Wall Street.

BRC: How did you come upon "The Inner History of the Johns Hopkins Hospital," which was a manuscript written by the real-life Dr. Osler?

LG: The manuscript was mentioned in a biography of Dr. Osler by Michael Bliss, written in 2000. The earlier biography, by Harvey Cushing, written in 1925, obviously lacked any mention.

BRC: In writing this novel, did you visit the areas described in the book, or were you already familiar with the city of Philadelphia well enough to accurately depict the routes that young Dr. Carroll traveled?

LG: I am a Constitutional scholar by training, so I was quite familiar with Philadelphia, both as it appears now and in colonial times. Two Philadelphia historians helped ensure that my 1889 period details were correct.

BRC: Is there a period that you have not yet written about that intrigues you?

LG: There are so many wonderful stories in history. Every time I read about a period, it seems more intriguing than the one I just left. I could write these for 30 years and not even begin to scratch the surface of what’s out there.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

LG: I am working on something now, but, in the spirit of suspense, will decline to discuss its subject.